Rouhani's Foreign Policy

How to Work With Iran's Pragmatic New President

Iranian President-elect Hassan Rohani speaks with the media during a news conference in Tehran June 17, 2013. Majid Hagdost / Courtesy Reuters

Supporters praise President-elect Hassan Rouhani as a champion of change. His detractors, meanwhile, see him as a shrewd apparatchik, a status quo figure determined to buy time for Iran to become a nuclear power. The reality is more complex.

When I first interviewed him in Tehran in the mid-1990s for a research project I was conducting about the Rafsanjani presidency, I found him to be intelligent, cunning, self-assured, and cautious with words. For a man of the cloth, his answers to my questions were non-ideological. Then, as now, he was pragmatic -- someone with whom one could do business.

He won the presidency precisely because he promised to bring a measure of rationality to Iran’s chaotic politics. He pledged to improve Iran’s deteriorating economic condition, respect human rights, release political prisoners, and replace Ahmadinejad’s confrontational foreign policy with one of reengagement with the world.

Rouhani is realistic enough to know that no faction in Iran’s highly polarized system can achieve such an agenda on its own. In the past 16 years, he has watched both the reformist faction, under President Mohammad Khatami, and the conservative faction, under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, try to go it alone. In both cases, that only led to tension and fissures within the elite. That is why Rouhani has promised to form an inclusive cabinet that attracts the most qualified technocrats from all factions.

Rouhani’s victory is, therefore, likely to gradually shift the balance of power toward the moderate center. He can rely on strong support from pragmatic former president Hashemi Rafsanjani and reformist Khatami, both of whom endorsed his campaign. Rouhani worked for each and is in a good position to unify their supporters by including them in his government. To lock in the reformists’ backing, of course, Rouhani has to deliver on his campaign promise to release Mir Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karubi, leaders of the Green Movement, from house arrest.

There are still those who could derail Rouhani’s

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