By July 9, 2013 Read More →
Managing Expectations After Iran’s 2013 Elections

Managing Expectations After Iran’s 2013 Elections

The election of Hasan Rouhani to the presidency last month has been greeted as indicating a progressive turn in Iranian politics. It is of course too early to tell whether the reformist rhetoric that permeated Rouhani’s campaign will materialize into concrete action. As Iran scholar Ali Ansari argued at a Chatham House event, although labelled as a “moderate” by many Iran-watchers, Rouhani is perhaps better described as a “pragmatist”. Haleh Esfandiari underscored this point in a recent article for the NYR Blog, observing that

Rouhani comes to office as an insider. For sixteen years he was head of Iran’s National Security Council (NSC) and for two years Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator. Even today, he sits on the NSC as the personal representative of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. He served five terms in the Majlis, or parliament. He sits on two major state councils, one of which, the Assembly of Experts, will elect Khamenei’s successor whenever he passes away. In holding high office, Rouhani was more a team player than a maverick and continues to support many existing Iranian policies. On Syria, since his election he has offered only the formulaic non-answer that the Syrian people should decide their own future through elections.

And yet, despite his clear-cut status as a regime “insider”, Rouhani’s campaign deviated from conservative norms on a number of levels: 

On many issues, including political freedoms, the growing presence of government informants among student and civil society associations, Iran’s international relations and its nuclear negotiations with the West, and the state of the economy, he used language and adopted a posture at odds with those of the ruling conservatives and, indirectly, of the supreme leader. While regime conservatives paint a rosy picture of Iran’s international standing, Rouhani spoke during the campaign of the “clouded visage” of Iran in the world. Conservatives describe Iran as the freest country in the world, but Rouhani spoke of the “the bowed silhouette” of freedom in the country, and of the need to free political prisoners. Both the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation, an Iranian human rights group in Washington, DC, and the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran estimate the number of political prisoners at any one time at around five hundred, although many hundreds more pass through the prison system for short periods of incarceration. Rouhani also promised to establish a ministry for women’s affairs, to pay attention to women’s rights, and to remove restrictions on women’s access to higher education imposed by the outgoing government. He also spoke vaguely of a “charter of rights” for all citizens.

What are the chances that Rouhani will be able to follow through? Commenting on the inherent limitations of the office of the presidency, Haleh Esfandiari reminds us that…

Rouhani’s powers are limited: he cannot appoint judges or the chief of the judiciary; he cannot appoint the chiefs of the security forces. But one of his predecessors, Mohammad Khatami, succeeded in removing the intelligence minister—twice—reining in the ministry and purging it of its most notorious elements. Khatami also succeeded in lifting restrictions on the press, book publishing and political association. The security services are much stronger today, but Rouhani has a model he can emulate. And as president, he can at least provide a moral voice and speak out against the widespread violation of human rights.

Finally, how should the West respond recent developments in Iran? Writing for Chatham House, Claire Spencer outlines the failure of recent policy, suggesting that Rouhani’s election may open up space for more constructive dialogue;

Under-estimating the tenacity of Iran’s key interests has served Western interests badly in the past. Failing to concede something to new regional times, in the kind of confrontation urged by Israel and the Gulf alike, will continue to serve them badly now. The pragmatism of Rouhani, within the constraints of his mainstream trajectory, should be seized on as an opportunity to de-escalate tensions in areas where there is some possible room for manoeuvre. But this may be in areas of Iran’s declared interests that the West has so far been reluctant even to contemplate until now.


Read More:

Haleh Esfandiari – Iran’s Man in the Middle – NYRB

VIDEO – Iran After Ahmadinejad – Chatham House

Iran: how ‘Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s candidate’ lost the election – The Guardian

Claire Spencer – Iran: Normalisation Iranian-Style? – Chatham House

The 2013 Iranian Presidential Elections: Cause for Optimism? – Nabataeans

Saeed Kamali Dehghan – Iran’s president signals softer line on web censorship and Islamic dress code – The Guardian

(Wikimedia Commons image courtesy of mangostar)

Posted in: Iran, Middle East

About the Author:

William Oliver is Nabateans’ editor for international economics and Middle East current affairs. He obtained his degree in History from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. While his studies focused on the Middle East in the 18th and 19th centuries, William has a long-standing interest in international finance and the political economy of development. William’s work is aimed at understanding how the Middle East integrates with the global economy, and into the wider geopolitical landscape.

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