Rouhani, the ultimate insider, promises change in Iran

IranPolitik’s Farzan Sabet was recently featured in an article by the CNN on the challenges President Hassan Rouhani would face in fulfilling his campaign promises and bringing about change during a prospective second term in office:

Farzan Sabet at Stanford University’s International Center for Security and Cooperation says Rouhani will need a new, stronger mandate if he is to “make a better case for changing direction on key issues, such as social and political freedoms.”

Sabet says that changing policies in these areas “would require a new consensus-building process between the President and conservative power centers, which would be significantly more difficult than the process that allowed for the nuclear deal.”

Farzan Sabet at Stanford puts it another way: “The question many of these voters face is not so much ‘Are you better off than you were four years ago?’ as it is ‘How much worse will life become with the alternative?”

His complete comments, not featured in full in the the article, can be found below:

Q: President Hassan Rouhani has been quite outspoken on the campaign trail and in the debates. How much is this just rhetoric to try to galvanize support and to what extent would he have the power to accelerate reform and push through greater liberties with a convincing win?

The strong and sometimes harsh political rhetoric in the 2017 Iranian presidential election campaign was initiated by the conservative candidates against President Hassan Rouhani during the first televised debate. His lack of a strong response during this debate led to a drop in his support, forcing him to forcefully counterattack against his conservative rivals to galvanise his base and reach critical undecided voters.

Rouhani barely eked out a majority in the 2013 Iranian presidential election, so a convincing win this time around could strengthen his position to accelerate reform. At the moment Rouhani is backed by a “super coalition” that includes reformists, centrists, and moderate conservatives, and together they control two of the most important power centers, the presidency and, since last year, the parliament. In this context a new, stronger, mandate could help Rouhani make a better case within the Islamic Republic’s internal deliberations about changing direction on key issues, such as social and political freedoms.

Q: How would you describe his campaign – has he been able to overcome the disappointment of many potential supporters whose lives have not improved much despite the 2015 deal? Does Khatami’s backing and Qalibaf’s dropping out change the dynamics much?

The economy, including the high unemployment rate, remains overwhelmingly the most important issue for Iranian voters, and a majority view President Hassan Rouhani as having been unsuccessful in resolving the country’s problems and think that the situation of ordinary people has not improved as a result of the nuclear deal. This has been the main issue on which Rouhani’s conservative rivals have attacked him. Nonetheless, national opinion polls give Rouhani a solid majority and lead over his main rival Ebrahim Raisi, so it seems that he has been able to overcome some of the disappointment of voters. The question many of these voters face is not so much “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”, as it is how much worse will life become with the alternative.

The endorsement of Mohammad Khatami, as the leader of the reformists, is certainly important to get a large swathe of voters behind Rouhani, but this endorsement was expected so it doesn’t change the dynamics very much at this point. The decision of Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf to drop out is more significant in that it helps consolidate the conservative vote behind Ebrahim Raisi. But Ghalibaf probably had a stronger ability to appeal to both conservative and moderate voters, meaning that this move likely further improves Rouhani’s chances of winning. But a big chunk of voters are undecided or have made up their minds but refuse to say who they will vote for, so the race still remains somewhat open.

Q: How has his relationship with Khamenei evolved and do you feel that Khamanei is relaxed about Rouhani being re-elected – even as Raisi is spoken about as a potential Supreme Leader?

Over the course of the past four years the relationship between President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has become more strained, such that I don’t think Khamenei is quite comfortable with the prospect of Rouhani’s re-election. Although U.S.-Iran nuclear negotiations began before Rouhani was elected, he was well positioned to take these talks to their conclusion and gained the backing of the supreme leader to do so. Having reached the nuclear deal, Rouhani may now have served out his usefulness to Ayatollah Khamenei and conservatives, whose agenda diverges with the incumbent president on key domestic politics and foreign policy issues. I think the decision for Ebrahim Raisi, who has been built up by some as a serious supreme leader prospect, to run, and the ability of conservatives to unify around a single candidate, unlike the 2013 presidential election, underlines their serious desire to defeat Rouhani and discomfort with four more years of his presidency.

Q: Rouhani has spoken about getting remaining sanctions relaxed – does that seem plausible?

The remaining U.S. sanctions on Iran deal with issues like the Islamic Republic’s ballistic missile program, Middle East policies, and human rights record, three areas in which the Iranian president has limited authority and that are of the utmost sensitivity for conservatives. Any decision to change policies in these areas would require a new consensus-building process between the president and conservative power centers, which would be significantly more difficult than the process that allowed for the nuclear deal. Add this to the fact that President Donald J. Trump, who has been critical of former President Barack Obama’s more restrained approach toward Tehran, and a Republican Congress are in charge in Washington, and it seems like getting non-nuclear sanctions relaxed is not plausible in the near future.