The victory of Mr. Hassan Rowhani in Iran’s presidential election held June 14 has surprised many people in and out of Iran. A moderate, Mr. Rowhani’s win will be seen as a repudiation of the hardline views of the current president, Mr. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
But while there is no doubt that the majority of Iranians have good reason to be unhappy with the current administration in Tehran, it is folly to think that the new president can radically change his country’s course.
Mr. Rowhani is a moderate relative to the other candidates, but he is no radical reformer. His win does not reflect a swing in the electorate so much as the inability of Iran’s conservatives to rally behind a single candidate.
He is a cleric, a former associate of Ayatollah Khomeini and a longtime member of Iran’s revolutionary movement, who has served in the Islamic Consultative Assembly since 1980. He led Iran’s nuclear negotiating team from 2003 to 2005, giving up the position after Mr. Ahmadinejad won the presidency.
His strident criticism of his predecessor’s policies have fueled hopes that he will moderate Iranian positions and prove to be a more centrist and reliable negotiating partner with whom the West can do business.
Mr. Rowhani’s win was a surprise. Going into the ballot, the leading candidate was Mr. Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the mayor of Tehran, another hardliner, who ultimately won just 16.6 percent of the votes cast. He split the conservative vote with Mr. Saeed Jalili, Iran’s current nuclear negotiator, who polled 11.4 percent.
Their rivalry opened the door to Mr. Rowhani. He attracted moderate voters who sensed an opportunity for change given the divided conservative camp. Winning 50.7 percent of the ballots, Mr. Rowhani won an outright victory, avoiding a runoff.
Unlike the last ballot, which was marred by charges of fraud to ensure Mr. Ahmadinejad’s re-election and remains contested to this day, this election seemed free of controversy. Iranian election officials released the vote tally in regular updates, all of which showed a clear victory for Mr. Rowhani.
While the actual voting process appears to have been untainted, the list of candidates that voters were given was limited. Real alternatives to the existing order in Iran were kept off the ballot. There are real limits to “free and fair” elections in Iran.
Nevertheless, the president-elect is widely viewed as a moderate pragmatist who rejects the extremism of his predecessor. After his victory was announced, he said he would seek to reduce tensions with the United States — usually referred to in Iran as “The Great Satan” — calling the relationship between Iran and the U.S. “an old wound, which must be healed.”
At the same time, he showed no inclination to move from the current administration’s position that there would be no direct talks between the two countries until Washington stopped interfering in Iran’s domestic politics, respected his country’s nuclear rights and lifted the crippling sanctions against Iran.
As a former nuclear negotiator, Mr. Rowhani knows well the key issues that stand between Iran and its full reintegration into the community of nations.
While promising more openness regarding Iran’s nuclear program — the West insists that Iran harbors nuclear weapons ambitions, a charge Tehran denies — he insisted, like Mr. Ahmadinejad, that Tehran would not suspend uranium enrichment efforts, a key stumbling block in nuclear negotiations.
When Mr. Rowhani led the nuclear negotiations he put a moratorium on the table; now, he says, “We have passed that period. We are now in a different situation.”
Still, the new president must ease the toll that sanctions have exacted on the Iranian economy and its people. Given the depth of the mistrust that exists between Iran and its interlocutors, this task will take real work; mere promises of transparency will not suffice.
Mr. Rowhani has also said he wants to improve relations with Iran’s neighbors. High on the list is Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional rival. Both Shiite-majority Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia contest for supremacy among Persian Gulf states, a struggle in which Riyadh is advantaged by the predominance of the Sunni faith in the Middle East.
This rivalry plays out across the region, but the consequences are being felt most acutely in Syria, where Tehran backs the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad and Hezbollah, a Shiite militia that is backing him. Saudi Arabia is backing the rebels. The result has been escalating bloodshed via proxies.
Support for fellow Shiites elsewhere in the Middle East is not just one of Tehran’s foreign policy maneuvers; it is a key element of Iran’s grand strategy. A change in the presidency is unlikely to bring about a change in that thinking.
Similar constraints exist for Mr. Rowhani elsewhere. Nuclear policy, for example, is set by supreme ruler Ayatollah Khamanei and others close to him. Mr. Rowhani’s room for maneuver may well be restricted to tactical adjustments.
Entrenched interests influence economic policy and may similarly constrict the new president. His election is a welcome development, but it does not mean that Iran is changing course.