Clever Move: Rowhani Rides to Power
Hassan Rowhani is everything Mahmud Ahmadinejad was not. He is charismatic, intelligent and, importantly, politically moderate. In a seemingly surprise electoral victory, Iran has inadvertently proven what most already knew; if you give Iranians the right to vote, without manipulation or vote-rigging - which marred the 2009 polls - they will invariably choose a centrist president, as they did in 1997 when Khatami swept to power on a similar platform of liberalisation and reform. This is because most Iranians are moderates. It is the religious regime, the Ayatollah and the Supreme Council, the al Quds Force and the Basij militia,operating with iron fists from behind the scenes, that bear responsibility for Iran's image problem and the policies of regional aggression, not the people.
The 2013 election, despite regime swaggering, intimidation, arrests and the barring of candidates, was (relatively) free and fair and, as a result, the streets are quiet. This does not mean Iran has learned from its past mistakes and is democratising, it is not. Instead, Rowhani is the candidate most acceptable to Iran's religious authorities raising the obvious questions of why this election was free while the previous one wasn't and why Rowhani?
The simple answer; the position of president is irrelevant in Iran. By taking a backseat and allowing Iranians to vote-in their president two birds were killed with one stone: the Iranian people felt that their votes counted, reducing internal strife, while the international community eases pressure on Iran to allow Rowhani the opportunity to change tact. In short, this election was a brilliant move intended to maintain the status quo while buying more time to achieve Iran's three pillared foreign policy of supporting the al-Assad regime in Syria, keeping tensions mounting within the Gulf Cooperation Council countries (especially Bahrain and Saudi Arabia), and pursuing nuclear weapons.
When, flush from electoral victory, Rowhani declared a 'no surrender' policy in pursuit of these goals, he was reciting the regime's lines, not his own. At the same time, when he adopted a reconciliatory tone and promised to address the economic and social issues which continue to plague Iran, he was genuine. The result, Rowhani's election has increased Iran's legitimacy domestically and internationally.
However, now is not the time to causally reflect on what changes Rowhani may bring to Iran's foreign policy, there will be none. It's three pillars remain intact. In Syria, for instance, Rowhani's election will not moderate Iran's position. He is not authorised to reign in Hezbollah or to redeploy the al Quds Forces, they are there in support of al-Assad and will remain there until victory or defeat. Despite the new tone likely to come out of Tehran, the fact remains that al-Assad's forces with Hezbollah fighters and al Quds logistical support have retaken the strategic town of al Qusayr and are now menacing Aleppo. At the same time, the US has deployed 300 Marines to Jordan to assist in arming the Syrian rebels while Egypt severed diplomatic relations to Damascus. Rowhani's election will not facilitate a negotiated settlement, it will only prolong the inevitable civil-cum-international conflict brewing in the region.
The same could be said of the situation in the Gulf. Iran's policy of destabilising its Arab neighbours through clandestine Shia groups - the 14 February Youth, Hezbollah, Sacred Defence Bahrain, the Houthi (in Saudi Arabia) - will not be moderated by Rowhani. Neither will Iran's controversial nuclear programme. Rowhani, as a former nuclear negotiator, has learned to play the powers and narratives off each other, though rhetoric, stalling and the Iranian strategy of 'takkiya' (double dealing to hide ones true intentions). He was not approved by the Supreme Council for his ingenuity, but rather for his policy obedience. He is the best candidate to explain why Iran tested a nuclear devise, indicating that a major nuclear announcement is in the works.
Rowhani is, ultimately, a spokesperson for the real power brokers in the country; he is no decision maker. So, despite the international fanfare and the calls by many to give Rowhani and Iran a chance, the opposite is true. The country has been given far too many chances and now is the time to redouble efforts aimed at restricting Iran's foreign policy goals, or prepare for having the most 'moderate' Iranian president in nearly a decade make the announcement that the country can never be moderated, that it is the nuclear republic of Iran.