The Rohani challenge

“We will open all the locks which have been fastened upon people’s lives during the past eight years,” Rohani said during a June 1 speech in Tehran.

Iranian presidential candidate Hassan Rohani (L) mural 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Iranian presidential candidate Hassan Rohani (L) mural 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Hassan Rohani, the winner of Iran’s presidential election, is being touted as a “moderate.” And in some respects this title appears fitting. Of the six candidates vetted by Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Rohani was the most outspokenly critical, injecting a bit of controversy into an otherwise lackluster presidential campaign.
“We will open all the locks which have been fastened upon people’s lives during the past eight years,” Rohani said during a June 1 speech in Tehran.
Last Tuesday, a documentary aired on Iranian TV showed Rohani criticizing the harassment of Iranian civilians by “plainclothes people” – a reference to the Basij, the paramilitary volunteer militia fervently loyal to the ayatollah. In other segments of the documentary, Rohani talked of “interaction with the world” and of gender equality.
Rohani was in Isfahan on Tuesday to attend the funeral of reformist-leaning cleric Ayatollah Jalaledin Taheri instead of the state-organized ceremonies commemorating the anniversary of the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founding father of the Islamic Republic. During the funeral, crowds chanted “Death to the dictator,” directed at Khamenei.
And Rohani’s campaigners did not try to play down the candidate’s attendance at what has been described as the largest anti-government protest in the country in more than two years. Unsurprisingly, when the only other “moderate” in the presidential race was asked by Khamenei to drop out, Rohani became the unchallenged choice of the reformists.
However, 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. Though the presidential elections are not meaningless (the president can have a profound influence on domestic policy), the man who decides on critical issues such as Iran’s nuclear project is Khamenei, the country’s unelected supreme leader who rules on the basis of the Godgiven vilayet-e-faqih or custodianship of the people.
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. This solved a dilemma face by the council: On the one hand, it was imperative that not just blatant sycophants be included on the list of approved candidates because this would undermine public interest in the vote, result in low voter turnout, delegitimize the incoming president and potentially lead to the sort of demonstrations that took place during the 2009 elections known as the Green Revolution. At the same time, the new president had to be loyal to the mullahs. Enter Rohani.
The election of Rohani makes the job of those who are working to prevent Iran from attaining nuclear weapons much harder. Whereas Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was candid and outspoken in his hatred of both the West and the Jewish state, Rohani is likely to attempt to exploit his “moderate” image and his popular mandate to advance Iranian interests, particularly the ending of Iran’s international isolation.
It will be much harder to portray Rohani as an unstable, irresponsible leader whose country must be prevented from receiving nuclear weapons. He is said to have a Ph.D. in constitutional law from Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland. He is an experienced statesman who was a longtime ally of former president Hashemi Rafsanjani. Between October 2003 and August 2005, he served as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, and he has published articles and at least one book on strategic and foreign policy issues.
If Rohani is permitted by Khamenei to offer even limited concessions on the nuclear front – even concessions that do not effectively end Iran’s march toward the attainment of a nuclear weapon – 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.