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 agenda. The first is Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Khatami presidency taught Rouhani that the Islamic Republic is resistant to reform, particularly if the president and the Supreme Leader do not work collaboratively. Khatami never developed a close relationship with the Ayatollah and spent much of his energy fighting conservative opponents who vehemently opposed his reforms. Rouhani, therefore, is unlikely to directly challenge Khamenei or initiate policies he does not support, at least early in his presidency. He also has been close to Khamenei for years.

To govern, Rouhani also has to work with the conservatives who have controlled every branch of Iran’s government for the past eight years and still control the parliament, judiciary, and media. And, most importantly, he will have to skirt around the powerful Revolutionary Guards and the security forces that could stymie his agenda. Simply put, the pace of change is likely to be slow.

Rouhani might overcome some of these challenges if he improves the country’s devastated economy. Mismanagement, pervasive corruption, high inflation and unemployment, and sanctions have hurt the standard living of all Iranians. Economic growth, in turn, would require the United States and the European Union to lift some of the sanctions they have imposed on Iran. Rouhani understands that there will be no sanctions relief unless there is a change in the orientation of Iran’s foreign and nuclear policies.

During the campaign, Rouhani promised to bring moderation to Iran’s foreign policy. (The supposed frontrunner, Saeed Jalili, who is the current chief of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team, supported the status quo and promised to "resist" the West. He received only 13 percent of the popular vote.) The change in Iran’s foreign policy is likely to start with a charm offensive toward all of Iran’s neighbors, particularly the Arab states of the Persian Gulf.

One way in which Rouhani will likely upend the old order is by reaching out to Saudi Arabia to explore the possibility of ending their lingering cold war and finding a way to manage their competition. The mistrust between the two countries is deep and their differences are profound. They have been on the opposite sides of ongoing conflicts in Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. Still, Saudi Arabia has welcomed Rouhani’s promise to improve relations, which is a good first step. Deeper engagement could begin with discussions of the bloody civil war in Syria and how to reduce the sectarian tensions between Shias and Sunnis that are destabilizing the Middle East.

Although it is unlikely that Rouhani will change Iran’s Syria strategy entirely, his administration is likely to be more flexible about the future of Assad regime than its predecessor. To encourage productive engagement, the United States should invite Iran to the upcoming U.S. and Russian—sponsored conference on Syria in Geneva. Iran will have no choice but to put its cards on the table.      

Another area of focus will be Afghanistan. As part of the Khatami administration, Rouhani played a role in developing Iran’s policy of cooperating with the United States to overthrow the Taliban. On many occasions, Ambassador James Dobbins, the new U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, has acknowledged Iran’s past cooperation. If there is one place where Iran and the United States can begin to build confidence, it is in Afghanistan. The two countries have a great deal in common there, including the desire to fight al Queda and the Taliban, control narcotics trafficking, rebuild the country, and maintain stability. As the United States draws down in Afghanistan, Iran can use its good relationship with the Northern Alliance, including Shias, Tajiks, and some former warlords to help Afghanistan hold peaceful presidential elections next year. That, in turn, would make it much easier for a smooth exit of American troops starting in December 2014.

Rouhani’s top foreign policy priority after that would likely be rapprochement with Europe. When he was Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Rouhani agreed to temporarily suspend the country’s enrichment activities. That important agreement was negotiated with France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. He is likely to use his connections with the trio to try to lift the sanctions.

Rouhani seems prepared to take the international goodwill that will follow his cooperation and use it to strike a compromise with the West about Iran’s nuclear program. Although it would be suicidal for him try to halt all enrichment activities, he could agree to make Iran’s nuclear program more transparent and subject it to intrusive international inspection. He might even agree to temporarily halting uranium enrichment up to 20 percent, if he gets sufficient concessions from the West. Khamenei will make the final call, but Rouhani is in a good position to initiate change. He has the mandate of 51 percent of the electorate, the backing of Rafsanjani and Khatami, and an established relationship with the Supreme Leader.

Rouhani is no democrat or even a serious reformer. He is a centrist politician, an ultimate insider, with a mission to save the Islamic Republic from itself, improve the economy, prevent a war with the United States, and find a solution to the nuclear impasse. He has to operate in a system that is remarkably resilient to reform, and has made anti-Americanism the key pillar of its foreign policy.

For its part, the United States can help the forces of moderation in Iran by trying to work with the new president. For example, the United States could place a moratorium on imposing additional sanctions, reinvigorate the nuclear negotiations through the Group of 5+1, and restart direct talks with Iran. It could even slowly start to lift the sanctions that are in place now. Rouhani could claim that as a victory, which would help undermine his opponents. Such concessions from the West, however, should be contingent both on concessions from Iran in its nuclear program as well as a discernible improvement in Iran’s despicable human rights record. Rouhani will soon find out that it is much easier to promise change than to deliver change.

  • MOHSEN MILANI is Professor of Politics and the Executive Director of the Center for Strategic and Diplomatic Studies at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
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