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What Will Rouhani Inherit Next Month?


Editor’s Note:

The following is a contributing guest piece by Houchang Hassan-Yari. Dr. Hassan-Yari is Professor of international relations and strategic military studies at the Royal Military College of Canada.


Even if the electoral vote of 50.7 percent by Hassan Rouhani is the lowest in comparison to that of his predecessors, it is mainly the context of his election that boosts his legitimacy. Rouhani takes the reins of presidential power in Iran in a critical period in the life of Iran and Iranians. At national level, the country is going through a dark period of relationship between rulers and the ruled. The economy of Iran has never been so rich in oil revenue since the revolution of 1979, with a population that is getting poorer by the day. The gap between social classes is widening significantly. A small minority of newcomers, those associates with the rentier state, holds most of the material wealth of the country. Unemployment and inflation have reached alarming proportions.

Culture and the arts have never been so maltreated as they have since 2004. The media and the publishing industry are severely limited and censored.

In the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI), morality is at its lowest as prostitution erodes the family values and social fabric of the Islamic society.

In terms of foreign policy, its mismanagement led to the destruction of political capital that the Iranian people had ​​because of their revolution. The predominance of ideology over national interests has created unfavorable conditions resulting in Iran’s further isolation and threat of military attack. Economic sanctions have substantially reduced Iran’s stand on the world stage. It is in this context of generalized crisis inside Iran and its relationship with the outside countries that Rowhani comes to power with promises to repair eight years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s damage to the country.

Can Rouhani keep and fulfil his promises? Does the Islamic political system have the ability to adapt to the new Iranian and international environment? In these uncertain times, one fact stands out: the election of Rouhani has raised many hopes and expectations in Iran and elsewhere. Is he able to unlock Iran’s foreign policy and bring prosperity to his fellow citizens with the symbolic key he carried during his election campaign?

Iranian politics

The Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) has a unique political structure. While decision making process is spread between non-elected and elected entities, the weight of the former outpasses by far the legal authority and power of the latter. The ultimate decider in all aspects of public and to some extent the private life of Iranians is a non-elected leader.

As leader of “the Islamic Ummah”, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has the powers that transcend those of any other ruler in democratic or semi-democratic countries. Article 110 of the IRI Constitution enumerates his formal powers. He defines the general policies of the country and supervises their execution. He declares war and peace, mobilises the armed forces, appoints, dismisses and accepts the resignation of the six Guardian Council clerics, the supreme judicial authority, the head of state-run radio and television, the chief of the joint military staff, the chief commander of the Revolutionary Guards, and supreme commanders of the armed forces (Artesh). He resolves disputes between the three wings of the armed forces and regulates their relations, and resolves differences that cannot be solved by conventional conflict resolution mechanisms, through his Expediency Council. The leader signs the letter that formalises the election of the President of the Republic by the people.

The Supreme Leader’s handpicked Guardian Council qualifies or dismisses candidates for presidency and the parliament. He dismisses the President of the Republic with due regard for the interests of the country, after the Supreme Court holds the president guilty of the violation of his constitutional duties, after a vote of the Islamic Consultative Assembly testifying to his incompetence on the basis of Article 89 of the Constitution. The leader pardons or reduces the sentences of convicts on a recommendation from his appointee, the Head of judicial power. In short, he is the ultimate playmaker and arbiter of politics in Iran.

Despite these boundless powers, the authors of the original version of the Constitution wanted to create a political system of ‘checks and balances’ à l’américaine. The Assembly of Experts for Leadership, which designates the leader, has the constitutional right to dismiss the leader, if he is deemed unfit to perform his duties. But over time, the assembly has not only failed to fulfill its constitutional responsibility in monitoring the leader’s performance, but it has become a venue for flattering speeches praising him.

Heir to a weakened authority

Rouhani comes to power at a time of constant attacks against the office of the president by the pro-Supreme Leader fundamentalists irritated by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

To his credit, Ahmadinejad was the only president who tried hard to re-establish the authority of presidency that was eroded by his predecessors. He pushed the power of the president as much as the Islamic regime could tolerate. He even challenged the authority of the leader in defending his selection of aides. The leader’s inner circle and their associates accused Ahmadinejad of trying to grab the powers of the leader. In the past two decades, the authority of the leader grew exponentially at the expense of the president, the assembly of experts, the parliament, and of other provisions of the constitution. Two main factors explain this aberration. The first reason is the complicity of former presidents, especially Mohammad Khatami, for not resisting the intimidating tactics of his political opponents in a conservative-reformist polarized Iran. Threatened by Revolutionary Guards and pro-leader vigilantes, Khatami retreated from his late attempt to get the Guardian Council define president’s authority. Khatami even once described the IRI president to be reduced to a facilitator (tadaroktchi) for the leader.

But what is the political context in which Rouhani will operate? The Article 60 of the Constitution stipulates that the functions of the executive, except in the matters that are directly placed under the jurisdiction of the leadership, are to be exercised by the president. Within the limits of his powers and duties, the president is responsible to the people, the leader and the parliament (Article 122). The president is responsible for national planning, budget and state employment affairs (Article 126). He shall also submit his resignation to the leader. If incapacitated temporarily, he is replaced by his first deputy with the approval of the leader.

Although it is too early to comment on the presidency of Rowhani, and despite the favorable response of the majority of the electorate of his election, the losers of the 2013 election have already begun to remind him of his constitutional limits in particular his power against the leader.

The economy would be the Achilles heel of Rouhani who will inherit a sick economy as the legacy of Ahmadinejad who enjoyed the support of the leader and all conservatives and promised to solve inflation in a relatively short period of time. Besides criticizing Ahmadinejad’s disastrous economic record, Rouhani has not proposed any specific measures to get the country out of its current economic malaise. His discourse is, for the moment, vague and revolves around the control of inflation, liquidity and unemployment.

During his election campaign, Rowhani promised that his government will bring the country out of its economic and social glitches, and solve its national and international political crisis in the first hundred days of his mandate. This overwhelming optimism will be mitigated by the brutal post-election reality. Speaking to a group of clergy on July 3 2013, Rouhani acknowledged that the problems accumulated over the years cannot be solved in a few days or months. While still very optimistic about the resolution of difficulties in the future, he said all must endure problems with patience.

The immensity of the task ahead for the new president is demonstrated by the state of the industry, the real unemployment rate including four to five million university graduates over the next four years, an inflation rate of 42 percent , the impact of international sanctions on the banking system and foreign trade, and gross mismanagement of all aspects of life in Iran by the outgoing government.

Hassan Rouhani, who doesn’t trust the economic statistics provided by Ahmadinejad’s economic team, told Iran’s parliament that this is the first time since the end of the war with Iraq in 1988, that the IRI has had two consecutive years of negative economic growth. Among numerous problems, he raised the issue of major gap between the provisions of next year’s budget and government’s actual obligations. Rouhani contested Ahmadinejad’s claim of creating millions of jobs by confirming the creation of only 114,000 jobs per year during the last eight years.

As Rouhani was criticising the outgoing government’s economic record in the Parliament, the Supreme Leader hosted the same government and praised its achievements. He said those who want to make judgments about the gigantic workload and the tireless efforts of the outgoing government should pay attention to its success on the world stage. The government promoted the revolutionary slogans and was proud of it, the leader stated.

In the field of domestic policy, Rouhani knows how to navigate. If he deviates from the acceptable premises established by the leadership, the state will not forgive him. The red line of the regime is its survival.

Rouhani and regional security

The most immediate and positive impact of Rouhani in the region and on the world stage would be his nonaggressive style of government and usage of a more sophisticated political and diplomatic language. He could be the human visage of the Islamic Republic

The new president knows better than anyone what his limits and strengths are. He is also more knowledgeable about world affairs than his predecessors at the start of his mandate. His election has left a cautiously positive impact on the region. He would be able to diminish the fear of the Saudis and other adepts of ‘Shia Crescent’ threat and the policy of Iran in support of extremism in the region. He would also try to appease Turkey and Egypt.

Any hurdles for Rouhani’s Islamist co-existence philosophy in the region would be provoked by radical militants inside Iran; those who would be the losers if peace prevails in Iran-Arab relations and with the Turkish government. As a question of principal, the leader runs foreign, defense and security policies of the country. The government has very narrow room to manoeuvre in these areas.

The chair of the Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee has already warned that the leader does not allow any compromises to prevail in the country’s foreign, defense and security policies. For conservatives, this should not happen in any government, as the constitution designates the leader as responsible for these policies. Even the reformist government failed to make meaningful compromises and ratify the Additional Protocol in the context of Iran’s nuclear standoff.

Other extremists believe nothing has changed as a result of the election and essentially no significant change in the socio-political situation should take place. The multiplicity of decision making centers in Iran is a major impediment for any president to fulfil his promises.

Despite these warnings and repeated preventive attacks against Rouhani by radical conservatives, the president could, paradoxically, salvage the Islamic Republic from itself. He came to power at a crucial juncture in the IRI life. Over 13 million Iranians did not participate in the presidential election. This election took place four years after the disputed 2009 elections and the denunciation of leader by the demonstrators. Rouhani has the potential and legitimacy to reconcile at least parts of the population with the Islamic state. The failure of Rowhani is not in the interest of the leader who would try to support the president in his less controversial plans.

In the IRI the president has limited power. Making good use of this power for the common good is an art that not all presidents have mastered in the past. Rouhani is much more apt than Ahmadinejad to not waste this opportunity.