Commentary

Expectations High for Rouhani Presidency

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, was officially sworn into office last week. After eight difficult years of the Ahmadinejad administration, expectations are high for Mr. Rouhani. However, many observers caution that one should not be much hope on the new change in leadership, seeing that the ultimate power still remains with the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.  Still, others have called for the new president to make the most of his victory by tackling some of the most vexing challenges facing the country and the region as early as possible. No wonder then, that many are anxious for the West (and Israel) to reconsider its stand vis-à-vis Iran.

Highlighting the advantages with which the Rouhani presidency begins, Asharq Alawsat’s Amir Taheri points out that, although Mr. Rouhani “won with the smallest majority among all the seven presidents of the Islamic Republic, he enjoys the advantage of being a mullah and a civil servant at the same time. The political segments of the clergy are reassured by his presence, regarding him as one of them. At the same time, civil servants, technocrats and business circles linked to the government see him as someone who understands their concerns. Because he was fairly unknown before his election, Rouhani does not have a popular base of his own. Amazingly, in a country where mullahs provoke intense hared from vast segments of society, almost nobody hates Rouhani.”

But, many have made it clear that the new president will have to deal with a series of difficult domestic and international challenges. As the Gulf Times editorials notes: “The economic crisis that has brought the most suffering to the country’s people is principally the result of the nuclear programme and the international sanctions brought on by it. Rectifying the situation therefore is not just a matter of economic policy but first of all of diplomacy. The West has relentlessly campaigned to isolate Iran during the presidency of Ahmadinejad whose uncompromising course and provocative rhetoric didn’t help Tehran also. Remaining at Iran’s side now are only Syria - now struggling in a bloody civil war - and Ahmadinejad’s  leftist friends in Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela.”

As a result, Walid Choucair writes, there is a need to be realistic about the limits of a Rouhani presidency: “The main factor that has brought together bazaar merchants, reformists, clergymen from Qom, and some of the Revolutionary Guard involves the popular national desire to escape the poor social situation that Iranian society has experienced thanks to the economic policies of the two governments of the former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, over the last eight years....Realism dictates that Rohani not sever ties quickly and suddenly with past policies, although if the difficulties are examined closely, all of these items become priorities. This is in order to limit any retreat on the nuclear issue or in expanding regional influence. The supreme leader and the Revolutionary Guard will not allow any type of coup.”

Writing in a similar vein, Al Hayat’s Elias Harfoush also warns that “One must be realistic with respect to what Iran and the world will be living through during Rohani’s time in power. Rohani’s statements – on that the Iranians opted for moderation instead of radicalism or that he extends his hand and calls on Iran’s foes for mutual respect – are not important. The important part consists of how capable Rohani is to push Iran down the moderation road and how able he is to meet the international rules allowing for the establishment of normal relations between Iran and the world. In any case, it is probably a good idea for us to heed Rohani’s piece of advice during the oath speech where he called for steering clear of illusions.”

That is not to say that opportunities do not exist for a re-engagement between the West and Iran. The Gulf News editorial, for example, makes the argument that the election of a new moderate president in Iran “offers a window of opportunity to the US to re-engage Iran and restart failed talks on Iran’s nuclear programme and many other matters. But as the pragmatic Hassan Rouhani takes office today as President of Iran, it will be very difficult for him to find a mutually satisfactory starting point for talks....But there is hope as Rouhani begins his new job. Most importantly, he has a substantial mandate in the election that he won in the first round. It is also important that the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei did not query his victory, implying that Rouhani will be able to work well with Khamenei.”

The advice, according to Yedioth Ahronoth’s Efraim Halevy, applies to Israel as well: “If Israel will continue with the delegitimization of the new Iranian government, even before any official talks have been conducted between Washington and Tehran, some of the Americans may reach the conclusion that Israel's only goal is to hurt the chances for negotiations with Iran....If what we are seeing now are the first steps toward negotiations, the more we detract from the importance of talks with Iran, the more we will be detracting from our ability to influence them....Should Israel add a word of praise for the Iranian people, who expressed in the recent presidential elections their desire for liberty and prosperity, perhaps it will mark the beginning of a long journey toward dialogue with the Iranian public.”

Finally, regional observers have also commented on the implications of Mr. Rouhani’s election for its Arab neighbors. The Daily Star (Lebanon) editorial draws attention to the need for a respectful dialogue between Iran and the Gulf states: “One of the key words used by the new president was “dialogue,” and this approach should certainly be encouraged. But Iran’s politicians should not deceive themselves into thinking that only the West and United Nations officials are worthy of the exercise. Iran’s neighbors in the Gulf are just as deserving of hearing and seeing new policies. If Iran can reduce tensions with these countries by engaging in honest dialogue and substantive policy adjustments, the entire Middle East, and especially countries such as Syria and Lebanon, will benefit. Otherwise, people will be in for another four years of tension, as even more time, effort and resources are wasted in a region that can’t afford it.”

Sharif Al Nashashibi however remains skeptical of any real progress between Iran and its Arab neighbors, suggesting that “even though Rouhani may have a different image and style than his hardline predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the substance of Arab-Iranian relations will likely remain unchanged, whether the new president likes it or not....Relations between regional powerhouses Iran and Saudi Arabia =have long been strained....However, realpolitik and regional dynamics may trump positive statements and goodwill, as they have before. Unfortunately, the sibling rivalry and the wider family feud look set to continue, at least for the time-being.”


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