The Iranian Presidential Elections: What Next?

Despite my disbelief  that Iran's theocrats would allow a perceived moderate to win the Iranian presidential election, a perceived moderate has gone ahead and done just that. It would appear that the turnout for the election was so significant and the votes for Hassan Rohani so overwhelming that the regime could not afford to implement the kind of post-election fraud that it tried to implement in the aftermath of the 2009 presidential elections.

So Rohani will become president on August 3, and the moderates have won one, right? Well, maybe not. I called Rohani "a perceived moderate" for a reason:

It’s not clear why much of the Western media continues to describe Iran’s newly elected president as a “moderate.” After all, Hassan Rouhani is a regime pillar: As an early follower of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Rouhani joined him in exile in Paris, and over the last 34 years, the 64-year-old Qom-educated cleric has held key positions in the regime’s political echelons, and served in top military jobs during Iran’s decade-long war with Iraq. As Iran’s chief interlocutor with the West on the regime’s nuclear portfolio, Rouhani boasted of deceiving his negotiating partners. Domestically, he has threatened to crush protestors “mercilessly and monumentally,” and likely participated in the campaign of assassinations of the regime’s Iranian enemies at home and abroad, especially in Europe. Currently, Rouhani serves as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s representative on the supreme national security council.

Aside from the fact that Iran’s English-language television station Press TV calls him a moderate, what exactly, in the eyes of the West, makes him one? After all, former president Muhammad Khatami labeled his public diplomacy campaign a “dialogue of civilizations,” which played right into Western ideas of tolerance and moderation. But Rouhani has nothing similar in his past.

“I think he gets that label because he has been Rafsanjani's factotum,” says former CIA officer Reuel Marc Gerecht. Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, another regime pillar and former president of Iran, is typically referred to as a “pragmatist” in the Western press. “Compared to Khamenei's circle, these fellows seem moderate,” says Gerecht. “Rouhani ran their little think tank around which foreign-policy types, the types that Westerners meet, gathered. Also, Rouhani was party to the only temporary ‘freeze’ in Iran's nuke program. Some folks—most notably the EU's Javier Solana—made a lot out of this. They should not have.”

There is a difference between being a moderate and being clever. Rohani is certainly more clever than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose belligerence and outrageous statements caused the international community to rally against Iran, and he may be more moderate than Ali Khamene'i, who because of his weak theological credentials is not taken seriously by much of the clergy, and who has to rely on his hardline reputation and his relationship with Iran's Revolutionary Guards in order to keep power. But all of this does not moderation make. More:

Hassan Rowhani, Iran's president-elect, said he hopes the country can reach a new agreement with the West over its nuclear programme, but ruled out a halt to its controversial uranium enrichment programme.

Mr Rowhani, a moderate cleric who was declared winner of 
Iran's presidential election on Saturday, also described as unfair and unjustified sanctions imposed against the Islamic republic over the nuclear issue.

The 64-year-old's victory raised hopes of an easing of strained ties with Western nations, but he used his first news conference on Monday to rule out a halt to the enrichment programme.

"This period is over," Mr Rowhani said, referring to international demands for a halt to Tehran's uranium enrichment programme.

There were "many ways to build trust" with the West, he added, as Iran would be "more transparent to show that its activities fall within the framework of international rules".

No one should be surprised that the nuclear enrichment program is not ending anytime soon. Since the days of the shah, Iran has wanted nuclear power and it is utterly unremarkable that the Iranian government is continuing work to achieve nuclear capacity. But for those who might have thought that the "moderate" Rohani will curb Iran's nuclear program, news that he is resolved to continue it must come as a shock.

Rohani makes noises  about wanting better ties with the United States, but he won't engage in direct talks with the United States in order to bring about better ties. Thomas Erdbrink does a good job in describing the limits to Rohani's sense of "moderation":

. . . Mr. Rowhani, 64, is no renegade reformist, voted in while Iran’s leaders were not paying attention. Instead, his political life has been spent at the center of Iran’s conservative establishment, from well before Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini led the Islamic Revolution in the 1970s. And analysts say that Mr. Rowhani’s first priority will be mediating the disturbed relationship between that leadership and Iran’s citizens, not carrying out major change.

Even his nickname — “the diplomat sheik” — is testament to his role as a pragmatist seeking conciliation for the Islamic leadership. Whether in dealing with protesting students, the aftermath of devastating earthquakes or, in his stint as nuclear negotiator, working to ease international pressure as Iran moved forward with its nuclear program, Mr. Rowhani has worked to find practical ways to help advance the leadership’s goals.

To be sure, it will be interesting to see what happens next in Iran. Elections have consequences and the results of the Iranian presidential election will be sure to resonate . . . somehow. But as all Iran-watchers know, there are serious limits to the powers of the Iranian president. True power resides in the hands of Khamene'i, as the nation's supreme leader. And to the extent that Hassan Rohani has power, he may not use it in the service of moderation.