Rouhani’s achilies heel: Iranian and American hardliners

Many questions over the election of Hassan Rouhani as the eleventh president of the Islamic Republic of Iran remain. One of the most interesting is how it is that following the 2009 Iranian presidential election, which many perceive as having been fraudulent, the regime allowed what appears to have been the relatively free and fair election (by Iranian standards) of the Centrist Rouhani, whose political current was being marginalized by Principalists just weeks before the election. As we argued in our first post-election article, most signs appeared to point to a Principalist win. Rouhani’s victory in the first round thus came as a shock to many Iran observers inside and outside of the country.

With some hindsight, what can we now say about the factors which enabled Rouhani’s seemingly unlikely victory? Possibly the most important may have been the decision of the more moderate Traditional Principalists to not unify with the more hardline Neo-Principalists. From the the five candidates who were ostensibly Principalists, only one dropped out meaning that the Principalist vote was split between four candidates. Not only was there a lack of Principalist unity, but at certain junctures they actually worked against one another. The most famous example may have been Traditional Principalist and foreign policy advisor to the supreme leader Ali-Akbar Velayati’s sharp attacks on Neo-Principalist and nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili for the latter’s handling of the nuclear negotiations with the P5+1 (permanent five members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany). There are also suggestions that Traditional Principalists may have used their influence to ensure the relative fair and free-ness of the election. For instance, one unconfirmed report indicates that Traditional Principalist and speaker of the parliament Ali Larijani put pressure on interior minister Mostafa Mohammad-Najjar to keep polls open as long as possible so all those desiring to vote could do so.

Another necessary if not sufficient factor was the decision of the Iranian people to vote in large numbers for Rouhani. There was little indication that they would do so even one week before the election and many contended that the experience of 2009 had embittered Iranians toward the election. There was even a boycott movement. On the day of the election however Iranians turned out in their multitudes, and gave Rouhani the decisive edge to win the election with 50.7 percent of the total vote in the first round, far ahead of his nearest contender.

Although there were important domestic issues at stake, for example the relative lack of social and political freedoms, the major issue far and away appears to have foreign policy, namely the crushing impact of economic sanctions and the constant threat of war which has been hanging over Iran as a result of the nuclear crisis. It may be that both Traditional Principalists and the Iranian people, not to mention Centrists and Reformists, balked at the path Neo-Principalists were leading the country down, thus paving the way for Rouhani’s victory. Rouhani’s most important mandate may thus be navigating a way out of the nuclear crisis which both relieves some of the sanctions and the threat of a military strike.

Yet many skeptics, especially in the United States, doubt Rouhani’s desire to resolve the nuclear crisis, highlighting the fact that he is a regime insider with close ties to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Such analyses miss a fundamental truth about the history of the Islamic Republic: Many of the biggest dissidents and reformers since 1979, including Abol-Hassan Bani-Sadr, Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, Mohammad Khatami, Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi, and Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, have been extremely high-ranking regime-insiders who fell from grace. Rouhani’s insider status should thus not blind us to the fact that he can be a real agent of moderation in the Islamic Republic. At the very least, his public rhetoric indicates that this is precisely the direction he wants to move toward. Rouhani has declared that “The world is in a transitional mood, and a new order has yet to be established…If we miscalculate our national situation, it will be detrimental for us.”

Rouhani’s entire election campaign and rhetoric indicate that he is a Centrist looking to improve the country’s domestic and foreign policy situation. However, he is beset on all sides by challenges. The least of these challenges are the Iranian people, who elected him on the expectation that there will be improvement’s to the country’s social, political, and economic situation, improvement’s which may not be forthcoming in the short-term. Rouhani will need to keep the people engaged at the grass-roots level to provide support for his political agenda and future elections if he is to bring about substantive changes.

A more perplexing challenge may be Principlists in general and the Neo-Principalists in particular. Following Khatami’s victory in 1997, the conservative forces who eventually became the Principalists current were in a state of shock for some time, giving Khatami the breathing space necessary to partially begin implementing his reforms. Principalists today are much better organized and much more powerful, holding nearly all of the country’s unelected centers of power. As long as Traditional and Neo-Principalists continue to be divided Rouhani may have the room for maneuver he needs to carry forward his initiatives. However, if this rift is healed or Neo-Principalists become more powerful, then Rouhani will have to deal with a potent opposition which has the ability to sabotage his efforts much as happened with Khatami in his second term.

The greatest threat to Rouhani however, in the short-term at least, likely does not come from inside the country but from the outside. The United States, and to a lesser extent the European Union, have it within their power to utterly ruin Rouhani’s foreign policy project. Rouhani’s moderate foreign policy can only go from rhetoric to reality if there are partners willing to take steps in tandem with the Iranian president-elect to defuse the nuclear crisis which has been a decade in the making. The presumption of many U.S. actions, namely the economic sanctions aspect of the dual-track policy, is that the sheer weight of sanctions will suffice to force Iran to unilaterally make concessions in P5+1-Iran nuclear negotiations. Rouhani however will be under enormous domestic pressure to make no unilateral concessions and so a path where both sides are making concessions and putting their cards on the table is much more viable. If however the U.S. continues its hardline sanctions policy and offers no road-map for substantive sanctions relief or acknowledgement of basic “nuclear rights” for peaceful purposes and under strict international control in the nuclear negotiations, then Rouhani’s presidency could be dead in the water before long.

Both Rouhani and President Barack Obama are under pressure from hardliner’s in their respective countries. President Obama however is in a much more solid position and may have it within his grasp to empower Iranian moderates instead of discrediting them as certain U.S. administrations have in the past.