Purple ribbons representing the candidacy of Hasan Rowhani colored Iran on Saturday, symbolizing a surprise triumph for Iranian moderates over conservatives four years after the green reformist movement was snuffed out by the country’s clerical regime.
In his public speeches, Rowhani — himself a conservative Shiite cleric –promised Iranians change both domestically and abroad. But Israeli experts on Iran said on Saturday that with no control over foreign policy and with the country’s economic situation dependent to a great extent on international decisions, the new president has precious little leeway.
“An Iranian president largely serves as head of government for the supreme leader,” Raz Zimmt, a research fellow at the Alliance Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University told The Times of Israel. “He has no real prerogatives in foreign policy and his ability to provide solutions on the central issue, the economy, is limited.”
Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s populist economic policies, coupled with crippling Western sanctions, have brought Iran to the brink of financial collapse. The official inflation rate is 32.3 percent (experts say it’s actually much higher) — the steepest in the last 18 years — and the rial, Iran’s currency, has lost half its value in the last year.
During a foreign policy debate between Iran’s presidential candidates, Rowhani made what was seen as a sharp critique of the current leadership’s bullheaded insistence on pursuing a nuclear program at all costs, noting, “It would be nice to see centrifuges turning, provided that the wheels of the country also turn.”
As secretary of the Supreme National Security Council (a position he filled from 1989 to 2005), Rowhani suspended the enrichment of uranium for two years, between 2003 and 2005. He was criticized for this during the election campaign, but repeatedly claimed that the decision was Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei‘s, not his. The United States had just invaded Iraq, and the Iranian leadership was fearful of a similar fate.
On Friday, Rowhani brazenly declared that he was running “to boot out the extremists,” indicating to Western observers that unlike Ahmadinejad, he seemed to be set on change. But Meir Javedanfar, who teaches modern Iran at Herzliya’s Interdisciplinary Center, said that paradoxically Rowhani could be put to good use by Iran’s conservative decision-makers.
“They could have falsified the elections, but chose not to do so,” Javedanfar said in an interview. “Now the regime can use Rowhani to mend bridges with the West, because the cost of sanctions has become too high.”
Zimmt said that by falsifying the elections like it did in 2009, the regime would have risked another round of widespread protests, a price hardly worth paying considering that Rowhani‘s positions are not diametrically opposed to those of Khamenei.
What moves can the new leader undertake?
Rowhani can try to convince the supreme leader to engage in negotiations with the US, but cannot initiate such a move on his own, Zimmt said. Domestically, he will likely act to release political prisoners and stress the importance of freedom of expression.
On Thursday, Rowhani told the Saudi-owned daily A-Sharq Al-Awsat that he aspires to mend relations with Arab Gulf countries and specifically with Saudi Arabia, which has viewed Ahmadinejad‘s Iran with deep suspicion.
Economically, Rowhani has a freer hand than in foreign policy, Javedanfar said; and he can roll back Ahmadinejad‘s policy of cheap government loans which caused a sharp rise in inflation.
One thing was clear on Saturday: The Iranian public wanted change, fearing the continuation of status quo or worse — a hardliner in the form of Saeed Jalili, the current secretary of the Supreme National Council and Khamenei‘s favorite.
“We won’t let the past eight years be continued,” Rowhani told a crowd last week. But his ability to deliver on that promise seems rather limited.