Rowhani's Election: Promise of Change or More of the Same?

Article excerpt

Hassan Rowhani marshaled a stunning victory in Iran's June 14 presidential election, in which nearly 36.7 million Iranians participated--roughly 72 percent of eligible voters. Rowhani managed to secure 18 million votes, approximately 51 percent of all votes cast. The only cleric out of the six presidential candidates, Rowhani's victory is a clear signal of protest against the Ahmadinejad administration's management of Iran's relations with the Western world, including issues over nuclear policies. He secured an overwhelming victory thanks to the votes of reformists and moderates. Although the last-minute endorsement by former presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami, both known for their reformist agendas, proved crucial to Rowhani's victory, many experts believe this was a victory of a pragmatist and activist model of opposition politics in Iran.

Rowhani's support for broader social freedoms, his criticism of the securitization wi wthin Iran, and his strong advocacy for women's rights rendered him a favorite candidate for change. However, there is no denying that economic insecurity--largely caused by the imposition of sanctions by the West in reaction to Iran's nuclear program--was a key factor in his victory. Rowhani built his campaign around the mantra of moderation, with an underlying message of regional detente and open dialogue with the West. Rowhani appears intent on repairing lingering rifts with regional Arab governments and Turkey, reversing the trend toward self-imposed isolation.

Improving relations with Saudi Arabia holds significant implications for several unstable areas in the region, especially in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Having become the site of a sort of proxy war, Syria has been turned into the most perilous arena for competition between Sauid Arabia and Iran. During the election campaign, Rowhani frequently noted that Iran should engage in serious negotiations with the Western world, while underscoring the primacy of national interest by arguing that Iran should prioritize the country's economy and well-being of its people above its nuclear program.

Who is Rowhani?

Born in 1948 near the northeast province of Semnan, Iran, Rowhani studied religion at an early age, and during his teens, he was heavily influenced by leading Shia scholars. He received his bachelor's degree in judicial law at the University of Tehran and a doctorate in law from Scotland's Glasgow Caledonian University. He launched his political career in the 1960s as a follower of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and after the Shah of Iran was deposed in 1979, Rowhani played several key roles in the newly established Islamic Republic. He has long been intimately associated with the ruling clerical establishment, maintaining balanced relationships with both reformist and conservative camps.

A dedicated and staunch supporter of Khomeini, Rowhani has served in the Iranian government for decades in various capacities: as a member of parliament (1980-2000), as secretary of the Supreme National Security Council (1989-2005), and as a member of the Assembly of Experts (1990-present). Moreover, Rowhani has also served on an advisory body for the Supreme Leader and headed the office's Center for Strategic Research. A quintessential regime insider, he fully comprehends all the inner workings of Iranian governing institutions. His pragmatic style is likely to sideline radical thinking and rigid ideological posturing, as long as he enjoys public support.

An Emerging Reformer

Rowhani has thus far presented himself as the standard bearer of the reformist movement in Iran--a movement that was suppressed during the disputed 2009 presidential election. Although Rowhani has never spoken out in plain terms against the brutal crackdown on the 2009 Green Movement's supporters and leaders, he has recently advocated for their release from house arrest, along with the release of former presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. …