Iran election of Rowhani gives glimmer of hope, major changes unlikely

The victory of moderate reformer Hassan Rowhani in Iran’s elections last weekend is a clear rejection of previous hardline stance. Photo: Rowhani

WASHINGTON, June 16, 2013 — The victory of moderate reformer Hassan Rowhani in Iran’s elections last weekend is a clear rejection of the hardline stance of previous President Ahmadinejad, but the firm grip of Ayatollah Khamenei means major changes are unlikely in the near future.

Iran’s Interior Ministry announced that Rowhani won the vote with 50.7 percent, with his nearest competitor Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf gaining only 16.5 percent. Hard-liner Saeed Jalil, the nuclear negotiator, came in third with 11.3 percent of the vote.

SEE RELATED: Iran Voices: Revealing election discourse

Western media jumped quickly to note the reformist credentials of Rowhani. Rowhani, the only cleric among the candidates, is considered a pragmatic conservative, credited with reaching a deal with the European Union to suspend uranium enrichment and avoid sanctions in 2003. During campaign rallies, Rowhani promised “constructive interaction with the world,” including efforts to ease sanctions that have severely hurt Iran’s economy.

Rowhani has also publicly, but carefully, condemned the hard-line policies of former President Ahmadinejad, saying, “We won’t let the past eight years be continued,” and adding, “They brought sanctions for the country. Yet, they are proud of it. I’ll pursue a policy of reconciliation and peace. We will also reconcile with the world.”

The new President also received strong support with his calls to end the “repressive security atmosphere” and promises to allow greater personal freedoms for Iranian citizens.

Rowhani was Secretary of the National Security Council twice. He served in the position under President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and under Mohammad Khatami.

SEE RELATED: The Iranian election and the Obama administration

However, Rowhani resigned from the position under President Ahmadinejad, after hardliners attacked him as too conciliatory.  

Much of Rowhani’s public adulation stems from his close association with Rafsanjani, who was disqualified by Iran’s election committee from running for election. Observers believe Rafsanjani, a well-known reformist, was too much of a threat to Khamenei and the old guard because of his massive popularity and reform ideas. Hard liners likely worried Rafsanjani could mobilize street protests with the potential to destabilize the government.

Rowhani retains a close relationship with Rafsanjani and has publicly admitted that he relies on the former president for advice. However, says Rowhani, he ultimately makes his own decisions.

Despite these liberal credentials, at least in the context of Iran, Rowhani is not a political outsider and retains a close relationship with Khamenei.

SEE RELATED: Iran pays for enriched uranium with economic downfall and more talks

Rowhani started his political career as an outspoken critic of the Shah, which attracted the attention of the Ayatollah Komeini and the conservative movement. He joined Khomeini who was in self-exile in France, and became a member of the Ayatollah’s inner circle.

After the revolution, Rowhani remained in the inner circle of government. His roles included reorganizing the military, overseeing state broadcasts which transmitted information for Khomeini, and serving in parliament.

Even the most reform-minded president has limited maneuvering room in current-day Iran. While the President has real power, Iran is a theocracy, and ultimate power rests with the Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah.

Candidates must receive permission from Iran’s Guardian Council to even run in the election. The Council is an unelected body appointed by Ayatollah Khamenei. Those deemed too much of a threat, or too outside the system, simply are disqualified from contesting the polls. The Council approved eight of the 646 candidates who applied to run this year.

Key policies, including the nuclear program, relations with Syria and ties the United States are directed by the Ayatollah and his clerics. While the president can influence policy, he does not have the authority to counter the wishes of the Supreme Leader.

Rowhani is likely to first focus on the economy and domestic reforms, where he may have more latitude than in high-profile foreign policy areas.

International reaction to Rowhani’s election amounts to cautious optimism. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry noted, “We admire the courage of the Iranian people who went to the polls and made their voices heard in a rigidly controlled environment that sought to limit freedom of expression and assembly.” He added, however, “We remain concerned about the lack of transparency in the electoral process, and the attempts to censor members of the media, the internet, and text messages. Despite these challenges, however, the Iranian people have clearly expressed their desire for a new and better future.”

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a plea to not get caught up in “wishful thinking” and release any pressure on Iran until much more becomes known. “The more pressure increases on Iran, so will the chance of ending Iran’s nuclear program, which remains the biggest threat to world peace,” Netanyahu said. “Iran will be tested by its deeds.”

The landslide victory for Rowhani, combined with the respect Khamenei has for the President, may provide at least an opportunity for change and for dialogue with the West. The situation is unquestionably better for both the people of Iran and the international community than the hardline stance under President Ahmadinejad.

The reality remains, however, that Iran is an Islamic theocracy controlled by the Ayatollah. Swift change and reform are unlikely to happen, regardless of who holds the presidency.


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Lisa M. Ruth

Lisa M. Ruth started her career at the CIA, where she won several distinguished awards for her service and analysis.  After leaving the government, she joined a private intelligence firm in South Florida as President, where she oversaw all research, analysis and reporting.

Lisa joined CDN as a journalist in 2009 and writes extensively on intelligence, world affairs, and breaking news. She also provides investigative reporting and news analysis. Lisa continues to write both for her own columns and as a guest writer on a wide variety of subjects, and is now Executive Editor for CDN and edits the Global, Family and Health sections.  She is also a regular contributor to Newsmax and other publications.

Contact Lisa M. Ruth


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