Iran’s Election Offers Glimmers of Hope

Iran’s Election Offers Glimmers of Hope

The recent presidential election in Iran has created a media storm and left analysts guessing what will come next. Iranians have chosen to replace outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with Hassan Rowhani a former academic and diplomat. Rowhani is widely believed to have been the most moderate candidate in the field and many in the West are cautiously optimistic.

Rowhani has broad experience in Iranian politics including its chief nuclear negotiator in the early 2000s, a stint as deputy speaker of the parliament, and membership on the Assembly of Experts. At 64 years old, Rowhani was active during the Islamic revolution and the Iraq-Iran war. This experience rightly suggests a close relationship between Rowhani, the state apparatus, and the clerical rulers who have final say on most policy decisions. Indeed, Rowhani’s candidacy was carefully vetted by the Guardian Council who were not shy about rejecting other bids from prominent figures including former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. In total, 19 applications for candidacy were rejected and a slew of others declined to apply in the first place given the probability of their rejection. Rowhani is no radical reformer and as Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu pointed out recently, Rowhani can only be seen as a true “moderate” in the context of the badly distorted Iranian political environment.

All of this gives fodder to those who see Rowhani as a conservative masquerading as a moderate and whose ambitions will be thwarted by the Guardian Council and Ayatollah, whatever his personal preferences might be. However, the Rowhani presidency could still prove a turning point in Iranian history. Rowhani was Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator in 2004 when Iran briefly agreed to suspend uranium enrichment as part of ongoing negotiations over its nuclear program (though he has subsequently bragged this freeze reduced pressure enough for Iran to make important technical advances). Rowhani speaks English and has spent a good deal of time in Europe, including several years at Glasgow Caledonian University where be obtained a Ph.D. His doctoral thesis (finished in 1999) focused on the flexibility of Islamic law with regard to Iran. While Rowhani’s personal history demonstrates a leader with some pragmatic stripes, it is the domestic economic situation in Iran that most heavily suggests the potential for moderate reform.

Rowhani campaigned as a practical leader whose primary goals were making concrete changes to raise the quality of life in Iran. The country has been battered by economic sanctions leading to a 40% drop in its currency, a sharp spike in pass-through inflation, and a decline in oil revenues of 45%. Iran has an official inflation rate of 31% (in May of 2013), but some private estimates believe the real number could be nearly three times as high. The Iranian economy desperately needs more trade and investment, particularly in the oil sector where its equipment is quickly falling behind industry standards and its lack of refining capacity continues to dampen potential profits.

General elections occur every four years in Iran, meaning Rowhani will have a relatively short time table to follow through on his campaign promises before facing the voters again. The fastest way to improve the economy would be for Western powers to remove some sanctions. Indeed a key plank of the Rowhani campaign was normalising international relations and repairing Iran’s reputation in the global community. This does not amount to an abandonment of the Iranian nuclear program (of which Rowhani claims to be a strong supporter), but it could include steps such as increased transparency and cooperation with UN inspectors.

Such pragmatic proposals helped propel Rowhani to a wide margin of victory and appear to have broad popular support. Rowhani won the election with 51% of the vote in a crowded six-candidate field. He garnered support in cities and rural areas across the country. The hard-line candidate Saeed Jalili, widely considered the favorite of the conservative establishment, came a distant third with only 11% of the vote. All of this comes in an election with well over 70% turnout. Taken together, this data amounts to a popular mandate for change. The vote was a clear rebuke of the bombastic approach of President Ahmadinejad that left Iran isolated and in economic crisis.

If Rowhani is able to improve the economy of Iran and mend relations with the West this will translate into concrete gains for the average Iranian and into votes come the next election. If not, Rowhani will be seen as having failed in his stated objectives and voters will turn elsewhere. Rowhani understands that his political fate is closely tied to Iran’s international relations and it is hard to imagine him not making some sincere efforts at moderate reform. Just how much Rowhani wants to change Iran and what level of latitude the Ayatollah grants him has yet to be determined. Meaningful change is by no means guaranteed, but the election of Rowhani does offer glimmers of hope for at least some reforms.

About Author

Evan Abrams

Evan was previously a strategy consultant with Anant Corporation, where he helped companies streamline and grow their online operations. He has interned at the United States Senate, the U.S. Department of Commerce, and SRI World Group. He is particularly interested in international monetary and trade policy. Evan also closely follows the private space sector, on which he completed a master’s thesis. He is currently pursuing a Juris Doctor at the Georgetown University Law Center. He holds a master’s degree in international relations from the London School of Economics and a bachelor’s from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.