Middle East Analysts Unsure of Rowhani’s Role

Experts divided on whether he will serve as reformer or Khamenei ally
Hassan Rouhani

Hassan Rouhani / AP

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Iran analysts were divided on the foreign policy implications of Iranian President-elect Hassan Rowhani’s election during a panel discussion at the Stimson Center on Monday.

Rowhani, a cleric and intellectual, has been described as a “moderate reformer” in the media despite his long relationship with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, his past harsh rhetoric against student protesters, and his claim that he deceived the West into allowing Iran’s nuclear program to progress surreptitiously during his tenure as nuclear negotiator with Europe.

“Which Hassan Rowhani’s going to show up as president? He’s said a lot of things, has a long paper trail,” said the Eurasia Group’s Middle East director Cliff Kupchan. “He has very explicitly supported, been an ardent supporter of Iran’s nuclear program, in some of his previous statements. And he had a famous quote where he pretty much says ‘We snookered the West, man.’ So will the real Mr. Rowhani please stand up?”

Fatemeh Haghighatjoo, a former reformist Iranian official who has advocated for a softening of Iran sanctions, said “hope and excitement is in the air” after the election, and that she believes Rowhani could forge a “national consensus” in Iran on the nuclear issue.

“The West, particularly the United States, must grab this opportunity,” said Haghighatjoo. “Rowhani has the ability to have cooperation with the West.”

Still, she added that Rowhani is “not a reformist” and said reformers supported him in order to ensure a more hard-line candidate was not elected.

Kupchan said the United States may see some modest but promising changes under Rowhani, including the potential for better cooperation between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency and “kinder words” on the international stage.

“The bad news is that the same guy makes nuclear policy decisions and that’s Khamenei, it’s not Mr. Rowhani,” he said.

Kupchan also said the election results showed that sanctions are having an impact.

“Contrary to the naysayers that the sanctions didn’t work, it was very clear from the Iranian public here that sanctions have made their lives worse and they don’t want that,” said Kupchan. “So I think a lot of the current grumbling in this country about sanctions was belied, was falsified by this election.”

Hosein Ghazian, an Iranian election analyst at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, said the election was engineered to include only candidates who were “trusted by the system.”

“[The regime] wanted to avoid the high cost of the post-election outcome,” said Ghazian, such as the massive street protests that were sparked by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election in 2009.

He said Iranian hardliners did not rally behind any one particular candidate, and even the office of the supreme leader was divided over whom to support, making it more difficult for this election to be rigged.

“The reformist camp was able to seize the initiative,” said Ghazian.