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Iran's New President Makes a Promising First Move

Hassan Rouhani, a man of ferocious pragmatism and an unfailing ability to find and align himself with the center of power in Iran’s labyrinthine political structure, was sworn in Sunday as the seventh president. His ability to stay close to virtually all the competing, even conflicting, factions within the regime; his success in remaining a confidante of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei while maintaining close ties to former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (now the two competing pillars of clerical power in the country); his experience as Iran’s one-time lead nuclear negotiator; and finally, his more recent elective affinities with Iran’s reformist forces have all combined to give him a singular role in shaping the Islamic Republic of Iran at this critical moment.

Trained at a seminary as well as a Western university (Glasgow Caledonian University, where he received a doctoral degree in constitutional law), Rouhani is among a handful of clerics who have stayed at the pinnacle of power for the entire life of the regime, including key posts during the eight-year war with Iraq and serving in Parliament for five terms. He is, in demeanor and discourse, polite but with a hint of haughtiness. Always fashionably dressed—yes, clerical robes vary widely in design and quality—he has a knack for finding the mot juste, some sufficiently ambiguous metaphor in which both his allies and critics hear their desired meanings. Standing a few feet away from Khamenei during his inauguration—wherein the vote of the people is “confirmed” by Khamenei and the elected president is “appointed” to his post by the Leader—Rouhani declared, with no apparent irony, that the age of despotism has ended.

For Rouhani, discretion is the better side of valor. In the days before the election, he went out of his way to show his close ties to Mohammad Khatami, Iran’s reformist president from 1997 ­– 2005. But when conservative forces refused to allow Khatami to participate in the inaugural ceremonies in Parliament, Rouhani refused to put up a public fight. At the same time, in spite of dire warnings from websites close to Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), Rouhani did include in his 18 cabinet nominees (who must be approved by Parliament) some key figures close to the reformists and to Rafsanjani. His nominee for the critical Ministry of Petroleum—the most important source of income for the regime—is Bijan Namdar Zangeneh, a man who, after Iran’s 2009 contested presidential election, represented Mir-Hossein Moussavi, the reformist camp’s candidate, in tense negotiations with Khamenei. His nominee for foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, is easily his most important olive branch to the U.S. and the rest of the international community. The American-educated Zarif was the country’s one-time representative to the United Nations, and has extensive ties to American political and financial leaders. Zarif has a well-earned reputation as a consummate diplomat, and is firm in his belief that rapprochement with the U.S. and the West is a key to the regime’s long-term survival and interest. He is, like Rouhani, of the opinion that Iran should safeguard its legal rights under the Non-Proliferation Treaty—including the right of enrichment—but must do so while affording the international community the requisite guarantees that the country’s nuclear program will not be diverted to military use. (Incongruously, the nominees also includes Mostafa Pourmohammadi, easily one of the more infamous clerics in the regime and one of the three “judges” who, on a fatwa by Khomeini, ordered the summary execution of some 4,000 prisoners in 1988. He is, in an Orwellian twist, a candidate for the Ministry of Justice.)

Rouhani used his first press conference as president, on Tuesday, to signal Iran’s readiness to negotiate with the U.S., as well as the rest of the international community. He was able, in his signal fashion, to seem eager to start negotiations yet also to emphasize that such readiness is not out of desperation but a desire to end tensions and get on with the business of taking care of the economy. At the same time, he criticized the recent tough new sanction bill, passed by the House as ill-timed and ill-advised. During the same press conference, reporters for Iran’s reformist papers were allowed to ask questions, with Rouhani cautiously promising to work toward freeing political prisoners and ending the political tensions in the country. 

While every indication is that he has arrived at some compromise with Khamenei and the IRGC on his choice of foreign minister—signaling that virtually all factions now see rapprochement as expedient—his choices for ministries that control the economy will likely face resistance from Parliament. With shrinking revenues and the IRGC’s increasing appetite for a bigger share of the economy, the control of ministries that control government revenues and rents, particularly the oil ministry, is likely to be intense. Not only have websites close to Khamenei and the IRGC have been sniping at the composition of the cabinet—too old, too technocratic, too Western, too liberal, too close to reformists, too close to Rafsanjani—but they have also begun to undermine the credibly of Rouhani’s program. One site close to the IRGC, for example, sarcastically listed 447 pledges Rouhani made during the campaign and pointedly quoted a religious text that says a prerequisite of piety is fulfillment of pledges.

Rouhani promised Tuesday to fight for all of his nominees, describing how several hundred advisors on his transition team helped find the most suitable candidate for each position. When a journalist asked why, in spite of his campaign promises to women, there were no women in the cabinet, Rouhani turned the question on its head and said women are abused and deprived of their rights in virtually every facet of their lives and having a token minister will not solve their problems. We will, he said, try to address their problem structurally rather than through tokenism. Taking a cue from American politics, he has promised to clearly lay out his plans and begin changes in the first hundred days of his presidency. And in a thinly disguised reference to Keyhan newspaper, Khamenei’s mouthpiece, he said they should not waste their time in bitterly attacking some of his cabinet nominees. “You should know me better than that,” he said sarcastically. Soon the world will get to know him better, too.