The implications of the recent Iranian presidential contest last month seem to have faded away in the face of mounting violence in Syria and related spillover in Lebanon, Yemen terror threats, and a rising death toll in Egypt. As journalists and policy experts scramble to address these immediate and violent concerns, a pseudo-democratic election in a country that is not mired in civil war or domestic unrest is left for discussion another day. Yet Iran is a pivotal state in the region for both U.S. and European foreign policy agendas as well as general regional stability. It is then important to ask if Rouhani represents real practical political change for Iran, or is it simply a symbolic gesture by Ayatollah Khamenei to avoid the protests following the 2009 presidential election?
Iran is a very unique state in the Middle East in several ways. With a population greater than 77 million that is only 3 percent ethnic Arab and 89 percent Shi’a Muslim, the country is both larger and more diverse than many states in the region. Yet ethnic and religious divides (aside from small segments of Kurds and Baha’is) is coded into the Iranian constitution – seats for Jewish, Christian, and other groups are by law free to practice (Ch. 3 Art. 23) and have seats in parliament reserved for them (Gasiorowski 2011). Another difference between Iran and other states (particularly the gulf states) is extensive electoral structure in accordance with the constitution. Local elections are common, and political parties have organized in the last few decades. While the national political structure remains an Islamic republic headed by the Supreme Leader and controlled by a series of institutional checks and vetting procedures, elections routinely occur and parliament does produce laws.
Rouhani (a moderate cleric) as the pick in the presidential contest reveals a few important details about the likely future of Iranian domestic politics and relations with regional neighbors and the west. It is incorrect to assume that Rouhani is a liberal reformer or that he would be able to implement a liberal reform agenda if he was. The political structure of Iran prevents even the most adept politician from achieving policy changes unfriendly to the principles of the Supreme Leader due to judicial and clerical review processes. However, this is not simply a symbolic gesture by the Supreme Leader, it is a strategic decision. Khamenei’s acceptance of Rouhani sends some important signals to the international community on what to expect from Iran in the near future.
First, it is not a coincidence that Rouhani was chief nuclear negotiator in Ahmadinejad’s first presidency. The west has a chance to reopen negotiations in the face of presidential turnover, and with Rouhani at the helm the west can expect sincerity and commitment to the process. The U.S. has picked up on this possibility already, offering a tentative olive branch to the new leader. This reveals a marked change in priorities for the Supreme Leader, who now seems interested in hearing what the west has to offer on the nuclear front after Ahmadinejad’s vitriolic “nationalist” approach fell flat.
Also, Rouhani’s diplomatic past is a signal to other states in the region that Iran may work towards improving ties with its Arab neighbors (Such as Saudi Arabia) and relaxing its provocation of Israel. While Israel remains skeptical of any real change, Rouhani seems genuine in his push back the isolationism of his predecessor. This too reveals that Khamenei is interested in altering Iran’s global image.
Ultimately, Rouhani is deeply committed to improving domestic conditions through negotiating an ease of sanctions, reforming economic policy, and improving relations with neighboring states and the west. While nothing that we know about Rouhani indicates that he is interested in liberalism, it is clear that the Supreme Leader has made a strategic choice in accepting Rouhani as Iran’s new president. Whether real change will accompany Rouhani largely depends on how we measure that change. Fundamental alterations to the political system will not occur. Diplomatic progress is not assured, despite Rouhani’s past. What we can expect, however, is a commitment among Iran’s leaders to reshaping the country’s image from radical isolationism to cautious integration in the international system. This will occur through toning down rhetoric and a focusing on domestic problems like the economy rather than defiance of the west and Israel.