Of the six candidates who ran in Iran’s presidential election, the most moderate and the only cleric – Hassan Rowhani – has been declared the winner by Iranian state television. His victory was a startling triumph. He won more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round and avoided a runoff.
His victory was a rebuff to the hard liners and those advocating “resistance” to the West as the central pillar of Iran’s foreign policy.
Instead Rowhani has called for more moderation in Iran’s dealings with the rest of the world. In his campaign appearances, he promised to restore diplomatic relations with the U.S., to free political prisoners, to restore civil liberties, and to bring “dignity” back to the Iranian people. All represent challenges to current practices.
During the eight year Iran-Iraq War, an Iranian moderate was defined as one who had run out of bullets. The question is what kind of moderate Rowhani will prove to be. Is this is all too good to be true?
Rowhani has been a pillar of the Islamic Republic with a long track record of having held very senior positions. He has been Deputy Speaker of the parliament, “Supreme Leader” Ayatollah Khamenei’s representative to the National Security Council and chief nuclear negotiator for former president Khatami. (It was during that period that Iran accepted a moratorium on nuclear enrichment.) Most recently he has been the head of a key advisory group for Khamenei.
If anyone understands the system and how it works, it is Rowhani. Ultimate power, or course, rests with the “Supreme Leader.” Rowhani must believe that Khamenei is ready for some changes. The Ayatollah has shown occasional flexibility in the past and is likely to be ready to make concessions to the new president.
In particular, he is likely to make these concessions as a response to Iran’s economic troubles. Outgoing president Ahmadinejad has badly mismanaged the economy and U.S. sanctions have been punishing. Oil revenues have plummeted. The currency has fallen against the dollar by half and inflation is running, by some informal estimates, as much as fifty percent.
Moreover, for Khamenei, the election itself, the turnout of 75 percent of eligible voters and the choice of the moderate cleric, Rowhani, lend immense legitimacy to the Islamic Republic. This is true even though literally hundreds of candidate were refused permission to stand for election. Concessions, in the face of what he sees as a demonstration of the legitimacy of Islamic democracy, will be easier to make.
The answer to the “is it too good to be true” question, then, is probably not. Some positive changes are likely to take hold after the new president is inaugurated. But one change that will not happen will be the refusal of Khamenei to surrender Iran’s right to nuclear enrichment.
U.S. sanctions are especially unlikely to bring that change about because of Khamenei’s total commitment to Iran’s nuclear program.
Nor will the most ardent hope of many U.S. policy wonks be realized. Their hope is that punishing sanctions will lead the Iranian people to rise up and overthrow the clerics. But with the election boosting the legitimacy of the clerical regime and the new president committed to changes that are likely to be adopted, those hopes are in vain.
No matter what the changes Rowhani will be able to bring about, living with the clerics will remain a serious challenge for the U.S. They will continue their nuclear program and are likely to continue to support America’s adversaries. Khamenei has definitely not run out of bullets.
Marvin Zonis is Professor Emeritus at the Booth School if Business at The University of Chicago and the author of Majestic Failure: The Fall of The Shah. He can be reached at Marvin.Zonis@ChicagoBooth.edu.