Sunday, September 29, 2013

Five Questions about Rouhani, Answered

Who is Hassan Rouhani?

Rouhani is a Muslim cleric, former diplomat, head of Iranian think tank Center for Strategic Research, and most recently, seventh President of Iran.  His election in June 2013 came as a surprise to many; the Washington Post Editorial Board mentioned him as an afterthought and declared he would “not be allowed to win.”   His clear departure from the rhetoric of former president Ahmadinejad was evidently welcome in a time of economic hardship and runaway inflation.

Is he a radical?  Reformer?  Liberal?

Not really, no.  While Rouhani ran on what was ostensibly a “reformist” platform, he does not appear to have drastic reform objectives, at least not the kind of reform that the American media has drooled over these past few weeks.  Within the Iranian sphere he is a moderate, and his centrism has served him well in a deeply divided political climate.   Rouhani’s foreign policy stance is one of conditional pragmatism; he plans to do what he can to negotiate a lifting of the sanctions without creating a break in the continuity of Iranian grand strategy.

How credible is Rouhani in Iran?

Thus far he has walked Khamenei’s line and appears to have the Supreme Leader’s full backing; that their friendship dates back to the 1979 revolution helps.  Rouhani also ran with the support of former presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami-two endorsements symbolic of his coalition from various points on the political spectrum.   His election hope-and-change platform won him 51% of the vote, and a large portion Iranian public continues to project optimism about his ability to bring Iran out of isolation- although many are still skeptical as to the propriety of rekindling US-Iran ties.

Where does he stand on nukes?

 While it looks like Rouhani hopes to get to the table and repair US-Iran relations to some extent, he won’t be willing to shut down the nuclear program.   The President invested 16 years in Iran’s Supreme National Security Council and served two as the country’s top nuclear negotiator; he may be willing to adopt transparency measures, but not to give up the centrifuges.  He is more likely to try and build enough diplomatic trust through good-faith gestures (or ‘heroic flexibility’ as Khamenei has said) to make the nuclear program more palatable.  This trust-building can only happen incrementally.

Where does he stand on Syria?

There is little reason to think that Rouhani’s election represents a major break in Iranian policy towards Syria.  In all likelihood, the Islamic Republic will continue to provide unconditional support to the al Assad regime.  Rouhani has, however, offered to facilitate a dialogue in the Syrian civil conflict, a gesture that was roundly rejected by the Syrian National Coalition.  In late August, the President lamented the use of chemical weapons in Syria on Twitter, but later expressed a firm belief that intervention in Syria would constitute a violation of international law.

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