Pragmatist Rowhani Wins, Now What?

Iran’s new president could improve relations with the West but is unlikely to change Tehran’s nuclear posture.

Newly elected Iranian President Hassan Rowhani listens during a press conference in Tehran, Iran, Monday, June 17, 2013. (AP/Ebrahim Noroozi)
Newly elected Iranian President Hassan Rowhani listens during a press conference in Tehran, Iran, Monday, June 17, 2013. (AP/Ebrahim Noroozi)

The victory of cleric Hassan Rowhani in Iran’s presidential election on Friday is the latest in a series of Middle East events that seem to have caught everyone by surprise. As recently as last week, many viewed hardline conservative Saeed Jalili as the most likely winner; he is very close to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and he ran on a platform of continued confrontation with the West. “Rowhani’s election could be the best news in many years for the future of the whole region,” wrote former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, citing his past experience negotiating with President-elect Rowhani.

While President-elect Rowhani has been referred to as a “moderate” by many in the Western press, it is important to note that he is moderate mainly in the sense that he was the most moderate of the remaining choices. Hundreds of others were rejected by the Guardian Council, an unelected body that vets candidates based on their allegiance to the system, including former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, the chosen successor of current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was term-limited from running again. Two of the eight candidates initially permitted to run subsequently withdrew from the race; reformist Mohammad Reza Aref did so at the request of former President Mohammad Khatami so reformists could unite behind President-elect Rowhani.

It is more accurate to describe President-elect Rowhani as a political pragmatist. A longtime regime stalwart who was part of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s entourage while in exile, he has also written that ideology must not stand in the way of advancing Iran’s interests. As a candidate, he promised more “constructive interaction” with the international community and strongly criticized the government’s management of nuclear negotiations over the past six years, which has resulted in increased isolation and economic difficulty.

It is dangerous to draw too many conclusions about what this means for Iranian government policy, especially this early. But it is significant that Iranian voters rallied, once again, behind the most moderate of the permitted candidates. Allowing his victory to go forward seems to signal an effort by the regime to repair many of the resentments and tensions that still exist over Iran’s 2009 presidential elections; many Iranians believe that election was won by reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi and stolen in favor of President Ahmadinejad.

A former nuclear negotiator himself, President-elect Rowhani is unlikely to significantly change Iran’s nuclear negotiating posture, which remains under the control of the supreme leader and his circle. But President-elect Rowhani has pledged more constructive relations with the world, and his win is still an important sign of support for a consensus candidate of Iran’s reformists.

Furthermore, President-elect Rowhani’s election undermines the narrative of Iran as a place where criticism of the government (as opposed to that of the system itself) is not tolerated. President-elect Rowhani was one of several candidates who aggressively criticized the government’s management of the economy and foreign policy during Iran’s televised presidential debates.

No one should be under any illusions, however, that the new Iranian president will simply capitulate to Western demands. President-elect Rowhani’s past writings make clear that he is a supporter of Iran’s rights to a nuclear program (which also enjoys broad support among Iran’s population), but he also has been a critic of the way Iran’s negotiators have managed talks with the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany). It is clear from President-elect Rowhani’s statements that international pressure, particularly action at the U.N. Security Council, has made an impact on his thinking. The question now for the United States is how to use this opportunity to make progress toward a negotiated solution to this pressing problem.

One thing that could dramatically undermine the potential for such progress would be yet another round of punishing measures from the U.S. Congress. The Iranian people have clearly signaled their desire for better relations with the international community. It is in the interest of both the American and Iranian people that the Obama administration and Congress find ways to work together to make the most of the opportunity created by Iran’s voters at the ballot box.

Matthew Duss is a Policy Analyst and Director of Middle East Progress at the Center for American Progress.

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Matthew Duss

Policy Analyst