International role uncertain for Rouhani’s Iran

Published: August 23, 2013

By allowing the election to Iran’s presidency of moderate Hassan Rouhani, the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has tacitly admitted his own past blunders and shown a desire for better relations with Washington and Europe.

But although the prospects of dialogue with Tehran look better than they have for many years, there are still formidable obstacles to improved relations. Chief among these is Iran’s nuclear development program, which it insists is only for peaceful purposes, but which several western intelligence agencies and analytical institutes say is close to having the capacity to make nuclear weapons.

Another immediate problem is Iran’s role as the heartland of Shia Islam in the Middle East, and Tehran’s active support for co-religionists against Sunni Muslims led by saudi Arabia.

Tehran’s aid to the Assad regime in Syria, the Shia government of Iraq and the Hezbollah terrorist group in Lebanon is widening the divisions that have flowed from the revolutions of the Arab Spring..
There is clear evidence that Tehran is providing arms and training for the government forces of Syria’s leader Bashar Assad in their two-and-a-half year civil war against Sunni Muslim rebels. To this end Tehran has also aided Hezbollah fighters from neighbouring Lebanon to join Syrian government forces.
Evidence in the last few days that chemical weapons have been used against civilians in Syria and the possibility that this may trigger international military intervention gives a sharper edge to Tehran’s role in the region.

Also uncertain at this point is how much freedom of movement Rouhani will have both in international affairs and domestic politics.

Much of Rouhani’s credibility with Iranian voters will rest on his ability to address the country’s multiple economic problems brought on by international sanctions stemming from Tehran’s nuclear program, and gross corruption and mismanagement.

Oil exports have halved in the last two years because of sanctions, and much of the remaining revenue is quarantined in banks abroad. The currency, the rial, has lost two thirds of its value in the same period. The official inflation rate was 34 per cent a year at the end of July, but many analysts believe it is twice that.

On the surface Rouhani, with 20 years experience in parliament including several senior positions, is well placed to bridge Iran’s internal political divides. 
He is a centrist who is close to both the arch-conservative Ayatollah Khamenei and two former moderate presidents, Mohammad Khatami andHashemi Rafsanjani.

Indeed, public support by Khatami and Rafsanjani is widely credited with securing Rouhani’s first-ballot victory in the June 14 election.

But Iranian politics is an intricate dance dominated by the ultimate power of the Supreme Leader and his Guardians Council of senior clerics, backed by the strong arm of the Revolutionary Guards Corps. On the other side are the parliamentarians who must frequently proceed by indirection to avoid the attention and vetoes of the religious overseers.

Khamenei and the Guardians Council have usually restricted their intervention in elections to using their power to vet candidates and thus insuring that only religious and social conservatives are allowed to run. The elections themselves have usually been allowed to proceed without interference, but in 2009 Khamenei’s forces engaged in massive fraud to ensure the re-election of the populist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Public disgust led to the formation of the reformist Green Movement and to weeks of bloody confrontations on the streets.

Ahmadinejad, with his penchant for senseless bluster and nonsensical conspiracy theories, was already an embarrassment to Iranians before his re-election. His increasing eccentricity in his second term convinced even Ayatollah Khamenei that he had made a mistake in backing Ahmadinejad. 
Iran’s international stature and its domestic political cohesion also demanded that this year’s election be credible. So Khamenei and the religious leaders blocked Ahmadinejad’s supporters from candidacy, and while they ensured that most of the candidates for president were strong conservatives, the moderate Rouhani was allowed to run.

His victory has been widely applauded at home, where there are hopes of economic recovery and perhaps some social reform, and abroad, where he is seen as a pragmatic rather than an ideologue.

The shift to centrist pragmatism is reflected in Rouhani’s ministerial appointments and there are now hopes that talks on Iran’s nuclear program will resume swiftly after the total failure of the last meeting in April. Rouhani was Iran’s nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005 and voluntarily suspended Iran’s uranium enrichment program in an attempt to ease relations with the United States and the United Nations.

However, even though Rouhani called earlier this month for a resumption of talks with the so-called P5+1 group (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – Russia, China, the U.S., Britain and France – plus Germany), that does not mean a breakthrough is imminent. The nuclear program is very popular in Iran, even among opponents of the government. Rouhani reflects that when he asserts the country has the legal right to pursue access to the full nuclear cycle, including the enrichment of nuclear fuel, which gives the capacity to create weapons. But the reality of power in Iran is that while Ayatollah Khamenei pays attention to political and public opinion, he has the ultimate say on the nuclear program, which he sees as essential to the country’s security. 

Copyright © 2013 Jonathan Manthorpe