Commentary

Has Iran Really Elected a Reformer?

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

Iranians have just elected their new president, Mr. Hassan Rouhani, who won over 18 million votes from the more than 36 million cast. Mr. Rouhani appears to have benefited from a divided conservative field and the last minute drop out of the remaining moderate candidate, who asked his supporters to vote for Rouhani. The embrace of Mr. Rouhani, a former negotiator on the nuclear program, by the reform-minded camp led by former president Khattami has certainly given the newly elected president the mantel of reform. But not everyone is convinced that much will or can change, since the real levers of power are still controlled by Ayotollah Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard.

In one of his first statements following his election, Mr. Rouhani pressed the United States and the West to recognize the fact that the Iranians have expressed their democratic will and that it was up to the Western countries to respect that voice and deal with Iran fairly: “Rohani was giving a televised message after his victory in the June 14 presidential elation which saw a massive popular turnout. ‘Those who [claim to] genuinely protect democracy and interaction as well as free speech should talk to this great nation respectfully and fairly after this great popular epic. They should recognize the rights of the Islamic Republic of Iran so that they could receive an appropriate response,’ he said.”

In Israel the general mood is one of suspicion. Yedioth Ahronoth’s Soli Shahvar, for example, argues that Mr. Rouhani’s election was orchestrated by Iran’s Supreme Leader, who wanted to present a more moderate face to the West: “It would be a grave mistake to describe Rohani as a reformist. Rohani is Supreme Leader Khamenei's confidante....the division within the conservative camp indicates that the regime wanted a more moderate candidate to be elected. The question is why would Khamenei and the conservative camp prefer a moderate president? ...Iran has also been hit hard by sanctions and isolated from the international community. The election of a relatively moderate candidate may cause the Western nations to ease the sanctions in order to ‘give the moderate elements within the Iranian regime a chance.’ This has happened in the past when Khatami was president, and it may happen again.”

The Jerusalem Post editorial takes the argument further, pointing out that “it would be misleading to see Rohani as a political leader who is set to bring about major reforms....Firstly; it is unclear how much power the president wields, if any. Iran is a theocracy....Also, Rohani, like the other five candidates who were allowed to run, was carefully vetted by the Guardian Council, a group of mullahs loyal to Khamenei. It seems Rohani was purposely chosen by the Guardian Council precisely because of his ostensibly moderate views....The election of Rohani makes the job of those who are working to prevent Iran from attaining nuclear weapons much harder....the international community might be tempted to loosen sanctions against the Islamic Republic, under the misperception that Iran under Rohani is more moderate. This must not be allowed to happen.

In Turkey, meanwhile, where the issue is viewed through the lens of the Syrian crisis, Today’s Zaman Sinem Cengiz is not convinced that the situation in the region will change any time soon because of the election: “The election of Hassan Rohani as the new president of Iran is unlikely to have any significant impact on the country's relations with Turkey....According to experts, the election of Rohani is expected to neither lessen Iran's support of the Syrian regime in the civil war nor mend the ties between Iran and Turkey....A series of unusually sharp statements last year from both Turkey and Iran have brought relations between the two neighbors — which had been improving until recently, even at the expense of angering Turkey's NATO ally, the U.S. — to what one could call a historic low.”

Elsewhere, however, there have been more positive responses. In Saudi Arabia, according to an Arab News report: “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah yesterday congratulated Hassan Rouhani on his election as the new president of Iran, while welcoming the new leader’s gesture to improve bilateral ties....The leaders of other GCC countries such as UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and Oman have also congratulated the new Iranian president....The GCC countries have been wary of their neighbor, mainly over its nuclear ambitions. Meanwhile, the 56-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation also congratulated the new Iranian president and wished him every success in administering the country’s affairs.”

Similarly, the UAE’s The National expresses in its editorial the hope that the election marks a new beginning, especially given Iran’s crucial role in the region: “Iran has a role in some of the toughest challenges that the region faces. Its influence is strong in many countries: in Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon, there are groups over whom the Iranian establishment can exert substantial influence. In two of the most complex regional issues — rebuilding Iraq and ending the conflict in Syria — Iran is openly meddling....Iran's isolation has bred a truculence that grates on its neighbors, but that is now innate. So there is little hope that the new president will bring change on major issues. Despite all of Iran's policy inertia, there is cause for cautious welcoming of Mr Rouhani's victory. He could yet prove to be the face of a positive policy of engagement, with the region and the world.”

Finally, the editorial of the Lebanese Daily Star believes a new window has been opened, not only for engagement at the international level, but also, and especially, at the domestic level: “His victory certainly generates a breath of fresh air, as the world closely monitors his statements on various issues at the outset of his four-year term....Rouhani knows he is navigating a minefield as he assumes office; besides the expectations of the outside world, and the hostility from ultraconservatives in Iran, there is also his constituency, which elected him. They, obviously, want to see the economic situation improve, and they want action on the crucially important issue of freedoms; there will be pressure on Rouhani to free from house arrest Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi, the symbols of the Green Revolution uprising from the last presidential election.”


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