(Reuters) – This past weekend, centrist candidate Hassan Rohani won the Iranian presidential election by a landslide. Rohani beat the two perceived front-runners who were hand-selected conservative loyalists to supreme leader Ali Khamenei, and he did it with an outright majority, bypassing an expected run-off. According to the interior ministry, turnout topped 72 percent, a level that the United States hasn’t attained in a century.
During the campaign, Rohani declared, “We will open all the locks which have been fastened upon people’s lives.” But while Rohani’s sweeping victory comes as a big surprise, it’s no shock to the system in Iran. Don’t expect Rohani to open the locks fastened upon Iranian policy. He simply doesn’t hold the keys.
All major decisions on foreign policy go through the Ayatollah. In Iran, the president doesn’t have the last word on the most important security matters, like the nuclear program and Syria. Sanctions will remain in place for the foreseeable future, putting a ceiling on the near-term economic improvements that Rohani can implement. Lastly, even if Rohani did have free rein, he would not upend the system. He is a consummate insider, working his way up within the Iranian establishment. He ran Iran’s national security council for almost two decades, spent three years as the top nuclear negotiator, and he maintains the trust of the clerics. He campaigned as a moderate, not a reformer.
That being said, when President Rohani takes office in August, he will have the potential to bring about meaningful changes within the confines of these restrictions.
It’s important to understand just how low the bar is set. Rohani is charismatic, thoughtful and pragmatic and this vaults him far above the outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, known for aggressive ideologies and rhetoric that springs from the realm of the absurd. President Ahmadinejad’s routine denunciations of Israel have made it impossible for the United States to make progress negotiating with him on the nuclear issue. Even if the U.S. were so inclined, his rhetoric and lofty demands have undermined any common ground.
Rohani’s election is a reset. Direct bilateral discussions with the U.S. are now quite likely. The sanctions coalition will find it much harder to hold firm when faced with an Iranian president on a charm offensive instead of one who is easy to hate. Rohani will also build a negotiating team comprised of skilled people who can pursue more nuanced and creative deal-making solutions. With heightened prospects for serious negotiations, the chance of implementing concrete measures, such as inspections and a slowdown in enrichment in return for reduced sanctions, rises along with them.
Granted, Iran’s broader nuclear policy won’t change. Rohani may have a voice, but he doesn’t have the final say, and even he has spoken only of trading more transparency for fewer sanctions, so an end to uranium enrichment isn’t on the table. It’s important not to confuse a change in Iran’s tone with any deeper change in its underlying interests. Moderate president or not, the supreme leader is still in charge, and the calculus hasn’t changed. Iran had a front row seat when the United States toppled Saddam’s regime in 2003. If Iran went nuclear, it would serve as a buffer against such intervention, and as a welcome tool in an increasingly dangerous regional environment.
Rohani has modest but noteworthy opportunities to improve the economy, many of which also stem from addition by subtraction as Ahmadinejad leaves office. Rohani can replace Ahmadinejad’s unqualified cronies with skilled technocrats who span the full spectrum of political affiliations and have decidedly pro-market leanings. Ahmadinejad quarreled with the conservative establishment to control local funds. Rohani, a cleric himself, can dramatically improve working relations between economic ministries and the clerics.
All of this will take place under smothering sanctions, the latest rounds of which will be even more crippling. But if Rohani does gain some traction in nuclear negotiations, the sanctions picture could slowly evolve for the better. And even if negotiations fall flat, it will still be a lot harder for the United States to keep the sanctions coalition as airtight as it was with Ahmadinejad in power. With a president who is bent on promoting transparency and efficiency in the Iranian domestic market, the allure of striking deals with Iran, even if it means bending the rules on sanctions, will increase for countries like China, Russia, India and South Korea.
As a moderate, there is a limit to what Rohani will try and push, whether on nuclear policy or the domestic economic picture. But what he does pursue has a better chance of gaining traction, as he has a wide spectrum of political support. Much of Rohani’s surge in the polls leading into the election can be attributed to endorsements from two reformist ex-presidents: Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami. Rafsanjani was barred from running in this election. The Guardian Council rejected all but eight of 700 candidates, whittling the field down to candidates that Khamenei could trust and control. It may have come as a surprise for a moderate to surge past more conservative front-runners, but Rohani is a creature of the establishment.
In 1997, Khatami ran on a reform platform and also won office with a sweeping majority and turnout. But his reformist initiatives routinely got waylaid by the Guardian Council and the Ayatollah, preventing fundamental legislative changes. Rohani will have to walk a tight line between the moderates and reformists who brought him into power and the hard-liners who hold the cards. A coalition of conservatives could block his moves, but he is working with the establishment’s blessing, his platform is far less ambitious, and he has support from the public and key reformists like Rafsanjani and Khatami himself.
After winning the election, Rohani declared, “The new atmosphere will definitely be turned into a new opportunity.” It is certainly true that opportunities exist and Rohani is in a position to seize them, with atmospherics working to his advantage. But these opportunities are bounded by structural constraints that haven’t gone away. And the geopolitical story in the region doesn’t budge either: Rohani is taking power in a country that is cementing its place on the exact opposite side of a growing major conflict that the United States is wading into. Iran’s connections with Hezbollah and the Assad regime in Syria will remain.
If he takes advantage of his honeymoon period in office, successfully charming foreign powers and maintaining his broad support at home, Rohani has great potential to make modest improvements. Even that is a significant shift for the better compared to what we saw during eight years of Ahmadinejad.
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