Though declared the winner of Iran’s recent presidential election, moderate candidate Hasan Rowhani will likely wield little real influence over the country’s hardline ruling clerics. The Iranian interior minister announced that Rowhani, the nation’s former top nuclear negotiator, took 50.7 percent of the popular vote. The runner-up, Tehran mayor Mohammed Qalibaf, scored just 16.5 percent. This outcome surprised political pundits and election watchers, who widely expected the race to go to a candidate approved by Iran’s ultra-conservative ruling elites. In electing Rowhani, the Iranian people delivered a sharp rebuke to the social and political culture that has developed during the reign of supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei.
A graduate in law from Caledonian University in Scotland, Rowhani became involved in politics during the 1979 revolution to overthrow the U.S.-backed Iranian shah. A supporter of Khamenei, he eventually became a trusted confidant to the new ruler. From 1989 to 1997, he served as the head of the National Security Council, the military entity that shares power with Khamenei. From 2003 to 2005, he operated as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator. When the United States and its European allies became concerned over Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, Rowhani brokered a deal that resulted in the temporary suspension of the activities in question.
The western world can breathe a sigh of relief in knowing that Rowhani came into frequent conflict with President Ahmadinejad, the reactionary ultra-conservative that pursued a policy of aggression with the West. Rowhani resigned as a result of his inability to work with Ahmadinejad, who was himself barred from seeking a third consecutive term as president.
A vocal proponent of reconciliation with the United States and its allies, Rowhani won the backing of Iran’s educated middle-class. His political rallies attracted thousands of supporters who were universally disgusted with Ahmadinejad’s bullying stance with the U.S. and Israel, and the near-isolation of Iran in the global community. United States supported sanctions, initiated over Iran’s nuclear program, have hit the economy hard. Iranian unemployment has climbed to 14 percent while inflation has ballooned to 30 percent. Supporters accepted Rowhani’s campaign promises of reform and renewed dialogue over the nuclear question. Without the support of the hardline ruling clerics, however, Rowhani can accomplish little.
Ultimately, Iranian political power rests in the hands of Ayatollah Khamenei and his inner-circle of ultra-conservative Islamic clerics. The Iranian theocracy has long viewed the West with mistrust and has cultivated a society that has been slow to adopt Western-style democratic freedoms. Iran’s highly educated urban middle-class, however, are fed up with the regime’s repressive ideologies. Rowhani’s election serves as a repudiation, specifically of the international relations pursued under the presidency of Ahmadinejad, who famously called the Holocaust a myth, called for the utter elimination of Israel, and suggested that HIV was an American invention to promote the sale of drugs and medical equipment to African nations.
Despite Rowhani’s reformist rhetoric, any large-scale reversal of current Iranian policy, such as the cessation of nuclear enrichment or development of civil liberties, must come directly from the Ayatollah. Commentators have also highlighted Rowhani’s past as an ardent supporter of the Ayatollah, and a high-ranking member of the Iranian power structure, as suggestive of his ultimate loyalty to the status quo.
Rowhani served for 24 years in the Iranian military and rose to the top of the heap as head of the National Security Council. While in this position, Rowhani reportedly issued a direct order that resulted in the death of protestors in 1999. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed outright pessimism that Rowhani’s election would substantially change Iranian policy. Despite Rowhani’s stated desire to improve relations with the United States, the president-elect still refuses to recognize the legitimacy of the Israeli state.
Whatever Rowhani’s real influence or actual loyalties, it will prove hard to top the problems Ahmadinejad caused between Iran and the West. At worst, the gesture of his public approval results in no change, and the military posturing between Iran and U.S.-backed Israel continues to escalate. At best, Rowhani can cite his wide popular approval as evidence of a sea-change in public sentiment, and leverage this against some of the Ayatollah’s more regressive policies.