A new start for Iran?

16 Jun 2013

Hassan Rouhani, the moderate reforming cleric, has won the Iranian elections. After leading from the very start Mr Rouhani finished 33% above his nearest rival, the mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf. Born into a family who fought again the Shah of Iran, Rouhani started his religious studies from an early age and continued them at Glasgow Caledonian University with an MPhil on "The Islamic legislative power with reference to the Iranian experience", yet his attendance there is under scrutiny as a result of the claim he attended the institution in the 1970s, when the university was not established until 1993. Nonetheless, he was a member of the Iranian Parliament for 20 years between 1980 and 2000 and has held several high profile positions within the Iranian hierarchy, such as Secretary of Supreme National Security Council between 1989 and 2005. But the real question is, now that Rouhani is president, will this be seen as a new start for Iran?


In his presidential campaign, Rouhani's main pledge was to instigate a civil rights charter. He has also advocated greater transparency regarding the Iranian nuclear programme, and his background as Iran's chief nuclear negotiator from 2003-2005 gives him a great expertise on the matter. He has claimed that: "Iran has an exclusively peaceful nuclear program, which under international law is lawful and indisputable... Nuclear weapons have no role in Iran’s national security doctrine." So this could see the UN sanctions imposed on Iran being diluted or even removed to some extent. Another of Mr Rouhani's election promises was to improve relations with the Western world, in particular the USA. He has called for more effective diplomacy between Iran and the West, claiming that there is a considerable necessity to deescalate hostility between the two and ensure there is a manageable level of mutual respect. Finally, the moderate cleric has sworn that the Iranian economy requires stability, criticising the poor management of the incumbent administration and confirming that with the correct planning, jobs can be created. So in general, Mr Rouhani can certainly talk the talk, he is promising some pretty reformist measures, in Iranian terms, giving hope to the discontent Iranian electorate. 

So will this man make an impact on the Iranian political stage? Well, some may say that this is another huge step forward for Iran. In the previous election Ayatollah Khamenei, Supreme Leader, endorsed the incumbent president, therefore rendering the election pointless as it would be impossible for the Iranian people to go against the word of their unelected (or elected by God as I'm sure he'd argue) Supreme Leader. However in this election, the Ayatollah refrained from backing any of the six candidates, meaning that the Iranian electorate had relative freedom when it came to choosing who they would vote for. Moreover, the Ayatollah realises that governments must be run on behalf of the people, and that there must be a general consensus among the electorate. Consequently, because the people have voted in a reformer, then surely he must have to allow reforms to take place. In addition to this, Mr Rouhani has the backing of the Iranian Green Movement, a pro-reform and pro-democracy party which was founded in 2005, with Rouhani in power it could be possible that they gain more influence and potentially even more power, enabling the reforms to really be implemented. Furthermore, the Democracy Party of Iran is also in favour of Mr Rouhani's appointment and clearly believe that he is the person that can make the most impact and bring the most positive reforms to Iran. So this could be a new beginning for Iran, they have a man in charge that is backed by several reforming and pro-democracy groups, as well as the Ayatollah seeming to be more open to change- this could certainly be the start of Iranian reform.

However, this is Iran, and we cannot possibly be certain about anything. The religious establishment of Iran have the final say in almost every single decision that is made, and as the BBC's World Affairs editor John Simpson describes, they can create a sense of "gridlock" in government, meaning that any reforms that are put in place will simply be rejected and blocked from being introduced. So despite Mr Rouhani's election success, the success of his policies may not follow. Many Iranian critics claim that Rouhani will merely become another one of the Ayatollah's puppets, in which he is simply a figurehead and wields no real significant power, all of which is in the hands of the Ayatollah Khamenei and his close loyalists. Therefore, although a reformist has been appointed, the likelihood of genuine reform is doubtful and, unfortunately, some assert that every single promise that Rouhani has made will slowly be abandoned and the status quo of Iran will be maintained. Of course this is all guess-work, but predictions at the moment suggest that Iran will shift a little bit, however because of the intensely conservative nature of the Iranian hierarchy any radical reform will be kept well off the agenda. Another criticism levied against the Iranian system is that, in reality, all six of candidates had very little ideological difference between them, and although many have been calling this the most open and free election in Iranian history, many forget that over 50 candidates 'applied' to be allowed to take part in the campaign, the vast majority of which were rejected, therefore there was no real competition in this election; Mr Rouhani is merely seen as the best of the worst. As a result, there are many people who are reluctant to believe that this is a new beginning for Iran and, instead, believe this new regime will only be the continuation of power for Ayatollah Khamenei.

To conclude, although Mr Rouhani has been elected, his impact as leader will depend solely on the Supreme Leader; if the Ayatollah decides to give him power then hopefully reforms will flow. Alternatively, if a governmental 'gridlock' occurs, then these reforms will not take place. So, the impact of this on the western world, principally the UK, could go one of two ways. Firstly, relations with Iran may improve slightly, with Rouhani intent on ameliorating links with the West as well as opening transparency with their nuclear programme. Or secondly, tensions could remain high as the Ayatollah remains in full control of the running of the country, preventing any type of reform. We will just have to wait and see.

Backbench Foreign Secretary


Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Please reload

Want to respond? Submit an article.


We provide a space for reasoned arguments and constructive disagreements.

Help to improve the quality of political debate – support our work today.