Calling Iran’s Rohani a ‘moderate’ is a misnomer
It seems that there is a consensus among Western media outlets to call Iran’s re-elected President Hassan Rohani a “moderate.” The problem with this appellation is that the term remains almost completely undefined: It can only be viewed in relative terms, making any categorisation ambiguous.
The labelling of Rohani is often accompanied with inexplicable optimism that the Iranian president will offer positive change to the Iranian people and bring Tehran closer to the West and other regional powers. Whether intentional or not, this mainstream branding of Rohani as “moderate” is misleading.
It should be clear that those known as moderates and those known as hardliners in Iranian politics are close to each other on the political spectrum. Rohani being a “‘moderate” in the Iranian sense would not enable him to implement any meaningful political or economic reforms.
Rohani is a conservative, like most of the theologian leaders of Iran since 1979. What may distinguish him from others is, perhaps, the fact that he acts with more pragmatism, especially when it comes to foreign affairs and trade.
In any case, regardless of who occupies the presidency, the final say on all matters of state falls to the supreme leader, currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The president in Iran is subordinate to the supreme leader.
Iran is a country that underwent significant changes in the late 20th century. The core problem in Iran is the structure and nature of the state and its various political and military apparatuses constructed after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Supreme clergy dominated leadership is the cornerstone of the state in Iran, irrespective of whether the political leadership is “moderate” or “hard-line.”
Despite the constantly shifting factional quarrels from administration to another (all with conservatism Islamist orientations) throughout recent years, the country remains economically isolated from the international community and has yet to change its destabilising profile in the Middle East.
The Iranian governing system is protected by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), an armed force founded after the revolution and tasked with protecting the Islamic nature of Iran. The IRGC is involved in all matters of the state, in the factional feuds, the economy and in foreign and security policies.
The Iranian Constitution considers the Shia clergy — guarded by the IRGC — as the highest authority in the country regardless of the composition of the presidency and parliament. Western estimates are that IRGC’s holdings range from one-third to nearly two-thirds of Iran’s gross domestic product. IRGC economic reach includes activities in the defence industries as well as the energy and telecommunications sectors. The revolutionary force is also in control of Iran’s borders and airports.
The IRGC, at the behest of Khamenei, plays a key role in Iran’s expansionist agenda. Over the last two decades, Tehran has been one of the forces driving conflict and war in the Middle East.
Iran substantially intervenes in regional affairs by funding its proxy Lebanese force Hezbollah, aiding the Assad dictatorship in Syria and supporting sectarian militias in Iraq and Yemen.
Iran’s state structure and the unelected theocratic leadership are things that Rohani and all factional leaders in Iran subscribe to. That is the system that defines Iran. There should not be expectations of any significant changes in Iran’s foreign and domestic policies following Rohani’s re-election.
During his previous term, the “moderate” Rohani continued his country’s confrontational behaviour in the region, contributing to growing destabilisation in the Middle East and increasing sectarian tensions.
Rohani’s record regarding human rights speaks for his domestic policies. He did not deliver on campaign promises on civil and political rights during his first term as security forces detained hundreds of activists, human rights advocates, journalists and minorities.
Rohani is credited by Iranians for lifting the international economic sanctions on Tehran as part of the nuclear deal, promising that the agreement would open doors for the Islamic Republic in the international market and stoke foreign investments. Yet, reforms to the state-centric economy are nowhere to be seen. The potential of both the Iranian population and market has not been realised despite emerging from a sanctions-related battering.
Whatever Rohani is, he is unable to overcome the supreme leader and the IRGC, particularly on matters of foreign and security policy. The supreme leader controls the armed forces as well as the security and intelligence services. Thus, the impact of whoever occupies the presidential seat is severely limited.
Understandably, some say that any change in Iran should be gradual and generational, and thus, having Rohani, who is somewhat removed from the Qom hardliners, is a step in the right direction.
However, any such change will not come anytime soon, nor should there be any expectation for change during Rohani’s second term. The Iranian state’s control runs deep.
Celebrating Rohani’s presidency as a win for moderation and reform is a baffling overstatement.