Saeed Hajjarian on Hassan Rouhani’s dilemmas as president

Hassan Rouhani’s surprise victory in the 2013 Iranian presidential election has somewhat disguised the fact that a number of structural factors stand in his way if he is to successfully pursue his political agenda. IranPolitik’s coverage of a recent interview by Aseman Weekly with the senior Reformist theoretician and strategist Saeed Hajjarian, as covered by the Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA), looks at what these obstacles are and how they might obstruct Rouhani’s progress on a number of issues, from nuclear negotiations to the economy.

As we here at IranPolitik have argued, Hassan Rouhani’s election to the presidency of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the 14 June 2013 vote was a highly contingent event. At least three factors, none of which can be taken as having been inevitable, strongly contributed to Rouhani’s election. The first factor was the decision of the Centrist and Reformist political current’s to unite for the purpose of the election, with Reformist candidate Mohammad-Reza Aref dropping out of the race to enhance the Centrist Rouhani’s chances in the first round. While the Centrist and Reformist currents have an ambivalent relationship, characterized by competition and cooperation only in more recent years, the 2013 election constitutes one of their closest ever political union. A united Centrist-Reformist ticket was able to present Rouhani as the candidate for change and put substantial resources behind his campaign.

The second factor was Principalist disunity. Not only did Principalists not put forward a single candidate, but in some ways actually fought one another, splitting the Principalist vote to such an extent that no single candidate from this current was able to break the 17 percent mark in terms of votes received. Just as importantly, Principalist disunity may have played a role in making the elections fair and free (by the admittedly low standards of the Islamic Republic). Without a consensus within the Principalists about which candidate to support it would have been difficult to rig the election in favor of one specific candidate, as many believed happened in the controversial 2009 Iranian presidential election, if such a desire existed in 2013.

Finally, Iranian citizens went out in large numbers, 71 percent of total voting age population if official statistics are to be believed, many voting for Rouhani and giving him a victory in the first round with 50.7 percent of all votes cast. There was serious doubt up until the final days of the election about whether Iranians would participate in the election or join a boycott, but in the end they appear to have cast the die for change but also with the ruling system.

Understanding just how contingent Rouhani’s elect was helps us in turn to better understand just how precarious his position as president could be in the coming four years. This was a major theme of a recent interview by Aseman Weekly with Reformist theoretician Saeed Hajjarian, as covered by ISNA.

Hajjarian argued that the successful implementation of the president-elect’s political agenda depended on his administration’s “coherence and the social-base power ability”. By “coherence”, Hajjarian may be talking about the ability of Rouhani’s coalition, which consists of Centrist, Reformist, and arguably even Traditional Principalists elements, to form a consensus around the policies to move forward with and to agree on a distribution of power within the coalition. This is implicit in Rouhani’s contention that he will create a “non-partisan government”, which may be Rouhani’s echoing of Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani’s call last year for a unity government. Yet this may be easier said than done given that there may be a lack of consensus even within Rouhani’s own Centrist current. For instance, on the issue of economic policy alone there are at least two main tendencies within the Centrists, with a Neo-Kensyan tendency associated with Mohammad-Bagher Nobakht (who is rumored to be in the running for minister of the economy) and a Neo-Liberal tendency associated with Masoud Nili (who is alleged to be a candidate for heading the resurrected Planning and Budget Organization (PBO)). If such differences within the Centrists and Rouhani’s broader coalition are not resolved, infighting could not only undermine the efficacy of Rouhani’s policy-making ability but embolden more hardline Neo-Principalists elements who have taken a wait-and-see position for the time being.

Hajjarian also noted Rouhani’s “elitist” personality, implying that while Rouhani could bring together the technocrats to manage the government, he is much more limited in mobilizing social forces to support his program and counterbalance pressure from hardliners: “…it is because of this elitism that within his main circle of allies he has only limited individuals and does not have a specific team, cadre, and party… However Rouhani is a good negotiator but his problem is that he does not have tools for pressure from below.” Comparing Rouhani and former President Mohammad Khatami, Hajjarian asserted that Khatami had a more coherent support from political parties and social forces, and indeed used his social base to support Rouhani in the 2013 election: “Rouhani must know that his votes (from the election) have belonged to Hashemi and Khatami, he must know where he has received votes, who has collected votes for him, and which people for what reasons and for which goals and programs have voted for him.” The message is not too difficult to decipher: Rouhani cannot forget the political allies (namely the Reformists) and especially Iranian voters who brought him to office, must include them in the work of his administration, and most importantly keep his promises to them.

Moving on to the question of how Rouhani should deal with hardliners, Hajjarian said that the president-elect wants to remove certain people from the government (likely meaning the appointees of the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad administration) and replace them with his own supporters, but that: “It is clear that removing these people from the government machinery has political costs and consequences and like the Reform era will activate the crisis-making cycle of opponents and will become cause for headaches.”

In fact, Hajjarian implied that the “crisis-making cycle of opponents” (like an oblique reference to the hardline Neo-Principalists) had already begun with Kayhan daily newspapers post-election attacks on the Reformists. When asked by the Aseman interviewer why Kayhan was going on the attack, Hajjarian seemed to believe that the newspaper, whose editor-in-chief is believed to be close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, wants to create divisions between Centrists and Reformists in the hopes of sabotaging Rouhani’s presidency: “This is the first barrage for later actions. The more important issue than Kayhan is the kind of approach from institutions who have entered the economy [a likely reference to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)] and the future government must confront them.” However if Rouhani is to win such a confrontation with the hardliners, Hajjarian insisted that there would be a “need for a strong team, a strong Ministry of Intelligence, and the serious cooperation of the judiciary and the parliament.”

Editors’ Note: As Hajjarian’s interview makes clear, Rouhani faces a dilemma not dissimilar to the one faced by his Reformist predecessor Khatami. He must balance the demands of both social forces seeking change as well as Principalists who control the main unelected centers of power in the Islamic Republic. While managing his own coalition, including Centrists, Reformists, and some Traditional Principalists, will not be easy, Rouhani’s pragmatic political style as well as experience working with various political currents at the level of Iran’s elites may enable him to achieve this. The more difficult task for Rouhani may be keeping social forces engaged with his presidency and channeling their energies in just the right way in order to achieve his political objectives without alienating Principalists who are suspicious of unleashing social forces and inciting the wrath of Neo-Principalists.