Rouhani Angst: Round II

Hassan Rouhani was sworn in as Iranian president this past Saturday following an inauguration ceremony in the Majlis (Iranian parliament). The week before, he received an official endorsement from the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the final step following his reelection victory before beginning his second term.

In his inaugural address on Saturday, Rouhani did not give much indication of what his political strategy would be for the next four years. The most memorable moment of his speech came when he spoke about the future of the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) by directly addressing the United States’ attempt to undermine the deal. “On behalf of the Iranian people and authorities, I explicitly announce that the Islamic Republic of Iran will not start violating the JCPOA but will not remain quiet against the United States’ continuing to wiggle out of commitments.” In a clearly implied slight against Donald Trump, Rouhani continued, “We have no business with novice politicians, but we announce to those more experienced that the process of the JCPOA can be used as a model for relations and international law.”

[As an aside: the most memorable moment of the event was clearly when a bunch of Iranian MPs fell all over one another in an attempt to take pictures of/with High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini.]

Outside of his position on maintaining Iran’s commitment to the signature policy achievement of his first term, many of the questions about Rouhani’s second term political strategy have not been answered. Will he make good on his promises to institute more social reforms? Will he be able to jumpstart the Iranian economy and improve the daily lives of Iranian citizens? Will he be able to maintain his power and influence against the conservative establishment? Only time will tell.

Most of the press coverage leading into his inauguration focused on Rouhani’s selection of his second term cabinet members. Their identities and their political affiliation could serve as early indicators of how far Rouhani might be willing to go to implement the reforms he promised — and his followers demanded — during the contentious campaign. If these articles are any indication, the answer is likely “not far enough.”

The clear theme in the popular analysis is that Rouhani is bowing to the hardliners’ will in picking his new cabinet ministers. His picks are expected to be exclusively male, continuing a tradition of female-exclusion at the top levels of Iranian politics, and may also include several prominent conservatives. This would no doubt anger many of Rouhani’s more reform-minded supporters, who expected to be rewarded with greater numbers and influence in exchange for their votes during the campaign. Several key cabinet members are expected to return for the second term, including most prominently Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who along with Rouhani receives most of the credit (or the blame) for negotiating the nuclear deal.

At present, the overall tone of Rouhani coverage in the press feels eerily similar to the negative reviews he was getting from many pundits heading into the home stretch of the election in which any indication of trouble is immediately interpreted as a prelude to disaster. During the election, Rouhani’s “more aggressive” rhetoric led many to conclude that he was on the ropes and that the country was heading for a reactionary swing back to the conservatives. Now, rumblings about a more conservative, or possibly even a less-reformist-than-hoped-for, cabinet have many speculating that Rouhani is prepared to abandon all his lofty promises.

One interpretation, which I have yet to see expressed elsewhere, is that Rouhani may be undertaking this conservative outreach in an attempt to avoid the fate of several of his predecessors. With the exception of Ayatollah Khamenei, who was elevated to Supreme Leader toward the end of his second term as president, all other Iranian presidents saw their influence wane during their tenure as lame ducks. This includes the popular reformist Mohammad Khatami, who despite a landslide victory in his reelection campaign in 2001, was stymied by the conservative opposition when he tried to parlay that result into a more aggressive reformist agenda. By courting conservative input in his new government, Rouhani could be choosing to bide his time and wait for the real battles to come.

Rouhani may already be looking toward his next campaign, though no one really knows when it will take place. It’s possible, even probable, that Supreme Leader Khamenei could die at some point in the next four years. His poor health is well known in Iran, to the point where questions about succession were a major part of this past presidential campaign. Some will recall the rumors that swirled around conservative candidate Ibrahim Raisi about his potential suitability for the role. Many saw his run for the presidency as an attempt to groom him politically for higher office. But with his resounding defeat by Rouhani this May, he has all but faded from consideration. Rouhani remains a dark horse’s dark horse for the job, but he is a consummate government insider who enjoys relationships, albeit not all of them good, with politicians of all stripes. His overtures to the conservatives might be an attempt to put himself in the right political position for if or when the opportunity to reach the pinnacle of Islamic Republic politics finally presents itself.