Honeymoon in Tehran: Rouhani's first 100 days

Since his election as Iranian President, many Western commentators welcomed Hassan Rouhani as a 'moderate'. However, his cautious choice of a new Cabinet point to an administration focused on economic reconstruction rather than political change.

By all accounts, the West's love affair with Hassan Rouhani continues unabated, with hopes being raised about the prospect of a more moderate and pragmatic approach to the lingering nuclear crisis, and even more excitement about the possibility that Iran and the United States might finally sit down to constructive bilateral negotiations with a view to settling over three decades of mutual animosity.

Some of this enthusiasm has undoubtedly been encouraged by Rouhani's pleasant demeanour and presentation, with his thoughtful if methodical articulation which contrasts starkly with the bombastic style of his predecessor. Among some commentators the Rouhani presidency is being interpreted as a return to the status quo ante-Ahmadinejad, a return to the era of 'moderation' and a chance to correct lost opportunities.

These readings suffer from selective amnesia - not least about the Tehran Agreement of 2003 and its aftermath.[1] As for the ability of Iranians to 'reboot' the Islamic Republic, these tend not only to underplay the tremendous impact of Ahmadinejad's policies, to say nothing of the fact that the Supreme Leader (apparently absolved from all responsibility for the last eight years) has remained protective of his protégé.

Indeed, Khamenei continues to praise the 'achievements' of the Ahmadinejad presidency and swiftly appointed him to the Expediency Council. Since this body is chaired by Ahmadinejad's nemesis, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, some have argued that Khamenei has cleverly kept Ahmadinejad close and under control. Yet it also worth bearing in mind that former President Khatami was never accorded this honour.  

A Weak President?

The reality is that Rouhani inherits a 'Presidency' that is both structurally and materially much weaker than the institution that had been reshaped by Rafsanjani in 1989 when he oversaw the abolition of the post of Prime Minister.  Indeed given the powers (over National Security and foreign policy) that Khamenei has reiterated are reserved for himself,[2] it would not be an exaggeration to state that Rouhani's office resembles more that of a prime minister working under parameters defined elsewhere. No one, least of all Rouhani, would want to admit that. But the constant references to the wise counsel of the Supreme Leader and the thanks being repeatedly accorded to him for having managed such an excellent election, to say nothing of Rouhani's cautious selection of his cabinet, all point to a presidency anxiously looking over his shoulder.

This is also reflected in his priorities which are firmly economic. His most interesting choices as far as his ministerial appointments are concerned (and we should be aware these need to be confirmed by Parliament, though there is little indication at present that any of his nominees will be opposed), are those dealing with the economy, many of which are drawn from the political faction known as the 'Servants of Construction'; technocrats affiliated with the Presidency of Hashemi Rafsanjani. The one interesting outlier here is Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran's one time ambassador to the UN, highly proficient and popular among Western diplomats, and whose appointment seems to be strong signal, that foreign policy and Iran's image abroad, will henceforth be given the attention it is due.

Zarif's connections to the United States are far more intimate than some have realised. His two children were born in the US and are currently studying there. It is widely assumed they are both US citizens and that his wife is also resident in the United States. This along with Zarif's strong identification with the reform period of Mohammad Khatami's presidency, make him both an interesting yet potentially vulnerable minister. (It is worth remembering that Zarif's appointment is not innovative. Both Rafsanjani and Khatami both appointed individuals with training in the West, while Ahmadinejad's last foreign minister was educated at MIT and his special adviser on foreign policy, Hamid Mowlana had lived in the US for decades and reportedly held a US passport. [3])

This vulnerability is a consequence of one of the most striking developments of recent weeks, and that is dramatic marginalisation of Reformists who, until recently, had largely been seen as pivotal to securing the voter turnout for Rouhani first round victory. While Rouhani thanked both former presidents' Rafsanjani and Khatami for their support, he was swiftly condemned by hardliners for his reference to Khatami - regarded by them as the leader of 'sedition' - and in rapid time the titular head of the Reformists found himself persona non grata, not least at Rouhani's formal inauguration. Indeed far from being a period of reconciliation and renewed social harmony, Rouhani has since taken a more cautious approach towards political reform.

All this should remind us that the government of 'moderation' that has been promised is firmly in the context of the extremism of the Ahmadinejad era, and indeed in the eyes of some, the parallel 'extremism' of the reformists (here it should be added that recent Iranian history is being shamelessly rewritten to conform with the present). Indeed Ayatollah Khamenei's demand that proponents of fraud needed to 'apologise' for the mess they had created,  has jarred with Reformists who wondered aloud why Ahmadinejad had not been asked to apologise for all the damage he had done to the country?

Rouhani's argument that his government would  do their best to seek the release of prisoners in coordination with other government bodies also serves to remind us that the political hinterland that Rouhani will operate in has not changed much and if anything has been reinforced with hardliners. Ayatollah Jannati, the notorious secretary of the Guardian Council, has just been reappointed to another term in office - despite, it might be added, his advanced age. Similarly Rouhani's controversial nomination of Mostafa Pourmohammadi, a cleric with a highly contentious reputation for the enthusiastic repression of dissidents, as minister of Justice, may be indicative of his need to keep channels open to a conservative Judiciary.

Rouhani the Traditional But Pragmatic Conservative

It may of course also indicate that Rouhani is at heart a conservative, albeit a traditional or 'pragmatic' one. We do know that he has been at the heart of the national security establishment for the better part of twenty years if not longer and had been one of the few people to be entrusted to talk to Robert Macfarlane of Iran-Contra fame.

For some, such an intimate relationship to the corridors of power is enabling and will facilitate change since Rouhani, the consummate politician will be able navigate the byzantine network that is Iranian politics with more skill than his predecessors. This argument however fails to explain how Rafsanjani, his ostensible mentor and a man widely regarded as the most astute politician in Iran, was himself eventually hamstrung by the political system he had done so much to create. The difference now perhaps is the depth of the economic malaise that the country finds itself in,  and the belief that the Supreme Leader has accepted that change is needed.

But the evidence so far suggests a cautious approach and one that will be led by economic reform and reconstruction on the model that was initially tried by Rafsanjani between 1989-1997. The main ambition of the 2013 election was to restore some political credibility to the political system and certainly for his part, Khamenei appears convinced that the main task of the election was to wipe the stain of 2009.

At another level, and the main driver behind the extraordinary elite alliance against Ahmadinejad, has been a determination to tackle the enormous economic difficulties now faced by the country; difficulties that many in the elite believe could undermine the entire fabric of the state.

The appointment of Zarif and the desire to move ahead with the nuclear negotiations should be seen as an extension of this economic drive, since the main target as repeatedly stated, is the containment and ultimate removal of sanctions. Better relations are an adjunct and hopefully beneficial consequence of this central goal.

The centre of gravity is therefore the economy and politics whether abroad or indeed at home, insofar as it does not directly impinge on the economy, will have to take second place. There is an immediate logic to this. But sooner or later, as previous presidents have found, the politics of Iran will catch up with Rouhani. Rebuilding Iran's economy will require much more than the lifting of sanctions, it will require good governance, investment, transparency and accountability.  This demands the stability that only the rule of law can provide. Indeed, the continuing debate about the impact or otherwise of sanctions, should not disguise the reality that Iran's problems are fundamentally domestic and that ultimately that is where the solutions will be found. 


[1] See,  Ali M Ansari 'Confronting Iran: The failure of US Foreign policy and the next great crisis in the Middle East' (New York, Basic Books, 2007), pp. 202-212.

[2] On 30 July 2013, Khamenei took the opportunity to publish a list of new 'fatwas' in which his powers are clear.

[3] 'Hashiye entesab yek shahrvand emrika beh onvan moshaver rais jomhur' [The peculiarities of the appointment of an American citizen as presidential advisor], Tabnak, 22 August 2009.


Ali Ansari

Senior Associate Fellow

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