October 4, 2013


Pragmatic Rouhani senses limited options (Shahram Akbarzadeh, 10/04/13, Asia Times Online)

More important than the diplomatic tone of the new president is the fact that the Iranian negotiating team is managed by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. This is another break with the mold, as the negotiations were managed by the Supreme National Security Council in the past. That Council reported directly to the conservative Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, while the Minister for Foreign Affairs Javad Zarif is reputed to be a seasoned diplomat and sits on the cabinet of President Rouhani. This is a significant shift and demonstrates Khamenei's confidence in Rouhani's leadership. 

Do these changes amount to a qualitative shift in Iranian policies? Can Rouhani bring change to Iran? Those who voted for him certainly hope so. His electoral victory in the June presidential race took Iran watchers by surprise. Rouhani won with the support of the reform movement and the endorsement of two former presidents, one known for his pragmatism and the other for his reformist agenda. The surge of popular support for Rouhani one week before the elections was a significant show of optimism, hope and expectations that he could reverse the damages done by the firebrand Mahmud Ahmadinejad. 

Expectations for change have been high. And Rouhani's measured and polite interaction with the Western media, his respectable performance at the United Nations and his twitted well-wishes to the Iranian Jewish minority have sustained them. 

However, Rouhani's scope for change is quite limited. And he is well aware of this. The Supreme Leader maintains the final say and can veto the initiatives of the elected president, directly or through the Guardian Council. This became clear under the presidency of Mohammad Khatami whose efforts at opening up the domestic political and cultural scene as well as Iran's external relations were thwarted, and eventually rolled back. 

The lesson for Rouhani is to keep the Supreme Leader on his side. And he has done well so far. Ali Khamenei's speech on the importance of "heroic flexibility" as a necessary aspect of Islamic governance as long as it does not jeopardize key principles, on the eve of Rouhani's UN speech, was a clear green light. 

Posted by at October 4, 2013 8:33 PM

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