Iran’s new president-elect, Hassan Rowhani, says he seeks a “dialogue with the world.” And the 64-year-old cleric says his country should show “greater transparency” in its nuclear program and promote “mutual confidence” with its adversaries, including the United States. So far, so good. But what can we reasonably expect from Rowhani?
Rowhani’s moderate language is a welcome change from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — the bellicose, Holocaust denying anti-Zionist, who was the face and voice of Iranian intransigence for the past two presidential terms. With his anti-Israel, anti-West message and his insistence on Iran’s right to the “peaceful” development of nuclear capabilities, Ahmadinejad worked hard to poison Iran’s relationship with the West. And he succeeded.
Rowhani’s more moderate language may serve to smooth those relations to some extent, but no one should expect a new political era in Iran. One reason is that Rowhani’s power is limited. He is subordinate to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has led Iran since 1989. As the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei has the final word on much of Iranian policy, including its nuclear program. Rowhani’s election doesn’t change that, and it doesn’t appear to change Khamenei’s interest in maintaining the political status quo. Thus, while Rowhani will serve as the new face of Iranian leadership to the world, his influence over significant policy issues will be limited. Instead, he will be required to speak the lines and the substance dictated to him by Khamenei.
The other reason not to expect much change is that Rowhani is not a reformer. In fact, he is not even a new face in Iranian politics. Rather, Rowhani is a known Islamic Republic loyalist, who has occupied a number of government positions, including nuclear negotiator. What distinguishes Rowhani is that he takes a less confrontational approach to his work. For example, he has used less provocative language while he has attempted to advocate measures to advance the regime’s goals. Thus, while Rowhani’s style may avoid the belligerence of his predecessor, we expect the substance to remain largely the same.
Early international reaction to Rowhani’s election was cautious. Almost immediately after the results were announced, President Barack Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, called the election a “potentially hopeful sign.” McDonough went on to say that if the new Iranian president were “to come clean on this illicit nuclear program, he will find a partner in us.” While U.S. reaction appeared diplomatic, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was blunt. He counseled his fellow countrymen not to “fool ourselves” and warned the international community not to engage in “wishful thinking and be tempted to relax the pressure on Iran to halt its nuclear program.”
McDonough’s hedging and Netanyahu’s admonition are well-founded. While we welcome a change in the tone and style of the rhetoric coming from Tehran, we need to see tangible results in several respects — particularly with regard to honesty and transparency regarding the country’s nuclear program — before any policy changes should be considered. The replacement of Ahmadinejad is a good thing. But if his replacement is simply another puppet of an intransigent supreme leader, the change won’t really make all that much difference, even if the message is couched in more moderate language.