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The challenges ahead for Iran's new President

The election of cleric Hassan Rouhani as the seventh president of the Islamic Republic of Iran confirmed both the unpredictability and the enduring adaptability of Iran’s political landscape. Rouhani, who will be officially endorsed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on 3 August, faces a number of immediate challenges, including bridging the gap between Iran’s political factions and addressing the impact of sanctions.


The return of pragmatism?


After eight years under the hardline conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, it would seem that the votes of those Iranians who preferred a more moderate leader and an end to the country's international isolation were recognized by the Iranian Government.

Based on his background and connections, Rouhani seems to be in a stronger position to engage more constructively than Ahmadinejad and has the potential to endorse dialogue with the international community on Iran’s nuclear programme, increase pragmatic engagement with countries in the region and pursue cooperation with the United States on converging interests such as security in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Yet, existing conservative political coalitions in the Iranian leadership remain divided and highly factionalized and it is not clear how much traction Rouhani can expect for a more cooperative approach to engagement with Western countries, in particular the USA, or in dealing with the economic problems and future direction of the Islamic Republic that were likely prime drivers for voters.

Dissecting the election vote

While independent international observers were not permitted to monitor the election, Iran's interior ministry reported that 36.7 million ballots were cast, representing a turnout of 73 percent. 

Rouhani, having secured just over 50 per cent of the votes, thereby obviating the need for a second round, achieved a convincing and broad political mandate to govern. He was the only cleric among the final six electoral contestants and the only candidate who campaigned on a platform of moderation and international dialogue with an intent to seek mechanisms to reduce sanctions.

The failure of the principalists (usulgarayan)—conservative, hardline Islamists that became mainstream with the election of Ahmadinejad in 2005—to coalesce around a single candidate meant that they campaigned with similar ideological platforms and ironically ended up contesting each other rather than posing a unified challenge to Rouhani.

Rouhani's track record

Rouhani, a middle-ranking cleric, holds a BA in Judicial Law from Tehran University and a PhD in Constitutional Law from Glasgow Caledonian University. He has held a number of important security, defence and diplomatic portfolios over the last 30 years, including that of Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC, 1989–2005). Rouhani is clearly a trusted, long-standing and important member of Iran’s political elite. 

Rouhani is known for his ability to negotiate and compromise: in November 2004, when he was the country's chief nuclear negotiator, Iran temporarily suspended its controversial uranium enrichment activities to build confidence about the peaceful nature of its nuclear programme, while negotiations proceed on a mutually acceptable agreement on long-term arrangement.

Bridging the gap between Iran's political factions

Rouhani did not comment on the controversial 2009 presidential election but nevertheless benefited from the late endorsement in the 2013 election campaign by two former presidents—the centrist Rafsanjani, a pragmatic conservative, and the reformist Khatami—who were themselves opposed to and marginalized by Iran’s principalists.

Bridging the gap between reformists (islahtalaban), traditional conservatives and the principalists, Rouhani represents a moderate compromise with the potential to ameliorate domestic tensions and rifts between ruling political factions, and to move Iran towards a gradual stabilization of its political system and its foundation of velayat-e faqih ('guardianship of the jurists').

He has already announced plans to form a multi-factional cabinet including competent technocrats from all political circles. He is likely to draw particularly on moderates and centrists as well as moderate reformists, traditional conservatives and principalists.

Cooperation with Iran's decision makers will be key

While the high level purging of competent reformist-leaning politicians and officials under Ahmadinejad may have been uncharacteristic of Iran's post-revolutionary period, it seems unlikely that Rouhani will include Ahmadinejad loyalists in his administration.

Despite Rouhani's well-established relationship with Ayatollah Khamenei, his success will also depend on whom he selects for his cabinet and whether he is able to work with Iran's ubiquitous security departments, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, whose leaders are appointed by Khamenei, and the Majlis, Iran's parliament, which is controlled by principalists.

On 20 July the Supreme Leader stated that he was 'not optimistic about negotiation with the US' as he continues to consider them 'unreliable and dishonest'. His comment is a reminder that cooperation with the USA will not happen in the short term. At the same time, it is important to bear in mind that Khamenei has previously condoned cooperation with the USA on Afghanistan and Iraq.

Addressing the impact of sanctions

The coming months will provide clearer indications as to how Rouhani will address Iran's low economic growth, high inflation and unemployment. In order to effectively implement his foreign policies, he will first need to stabilize the economy. This will require confronting the imposition of harsh international sanctions. 

Nevertheless, under Rouhani, Iran will almost certainly proceed with its nuclear programme and consequently be prepared to endure the persistence of sanctions. The new nuclear negotiation team, which is currently being formed, will certainly be less confrontational.

It will also be more likely to negotiate measures of confidence and transparency to address international concerns about the Islamic Republic's nuclear programme, in exchange for an easing of international sanctions and recognition of the Islamic Republic's right to pursue the peaceful development of nuclear energy.