Rohani seeks a big election win
The often taciturn Iranian President Hassan Rohani has been in buoyant mood. “How can one be an Iranian and not cheer our negotiating team?” he asked during a medical conference in late July in remarks broadcast live on television. “This is a new page in history. It didn’t happen when we reached the deal in Vienna on July 14; it happened on August 4, 2013, when the Iranians elected me as their president.”
Rohani’s star can rise further. The president seems set for a boost in the February 2016 parliamentary elections, assuming that the US Congress will not, as many Iranians fear, scuttle the Vienna agreement. Rohani has told Iranians a convincing story since his successful 2013 presidential campaign, when he won partly by acknowledging the corrosive effect of sanctions on the country’s economy.
With the support of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Rohani marshalled most of the political class behind negotiations and has now achieved international recognition of Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium and a commitment to lift sanctions.
But if his talk of a “new page of history” is dramatic, Rohani is too wise to become complacent as he continues to face challenges in the fiercely competitive world of Iranian politics.
As ever, Khamenei is a fulcrum. The leader likes to appear aloof from Iran’s various factions. While he has backed Rohani throughout the talks, Khamenei has kept a careful ambiguity — partly to present a poker face to world powers and to hedge against talks failing, but partly also for domestic reasons: to calm fundamentalists’ fears over concessions and to counteract any sense in Iran that talks might lead to an early, wider rapprochement with the United States. His comments on the agreement have been in line with this. While praising the negotiators, Khamenei has reiterated Iran’s continuing resistance to the United States and Tehran’s commitment to keep supporting its “friends in the region including the oppressed nations of Palestine, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain and Lebanon”.
Khamenei’s ambiguity has encouraged critical fundamentalists to express criticism of the nuclear talks. Some have attacked the UN resolution endorsing the Vienna agreement for crossing Iran’s “red lines”, while the continuing “martyrdom” of Revolutionary Guards in Syria and Iraq reinforces fundamentalists’ sense that the United States is orchestrating hostile forces surrounding Iran. Hence Khamenei has ruled out talks on resuming formal diplomatic relations with Washington, broken off following the 1979 revolution.
But critics of the deal can take their barbs only so far. Like that of the US Republicans, their criticism is undermined by their failure to present a convincing alternative. Rohani has adopted Khamenei’s notion of “heroic flexibility” and seems set to win a political dividend with a more supportive parliament after the February 2016 elections for the 290-member assembly long dominated by conservatives. On the other side of the spectrum to the fundamentalists, the reformists are also on uncertain ground. When reformist president Mohammad Khatami attempted to reach a nuclear agreement with the European Union in 2003-05, conservatives feared the reformist “left” would receive a massive boost as a result.
In practice, what Americans call the “Nixon goes to China factor” has meant it has been far easier for a pragmatic conservative such as Rohani to secure a deal.
Hence the reformists are unlikely to benefit from Vienna, at least in the short term. Khamenei has already warned against any “exploitation” of the nuclear agreement, a message to reformists not to take any encouragement to demand political or social changes.
The leaders of the Green Movement, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, will probably remain under house arrest while Green supporters will be barred from the parliamentary election by the watchdog Guardian Council. Other reformists may scrape through but many will instead back informal arrangements to support candidates sympathetic to Rohani.
In any case, it would be a mistake to simplify any Iranian election. Many deputies are returned on local or regional issues. A majority in the current parliament has supported Speaker Ali Larijani, a stalwart supporter of the supreme leader who has combined pragmatism in foreign policy with a tight line on social and cultural issues.
It seems likely that the next parliament will be broadly more supportive of Rohani and he will certainly need that support if he is to deliver on his stated aim of shaking up Iran’s economy through encouraging the private sector and stimulating competition.
Successive presidents have failed to stop either their own government or parliament dipping into oil revenue as a source of day-to-day finance or for funding popular projects, thereby diminishing the productive investment the economy needs to meet an ambitious 8% growth target and provide sufficient employment opportunities for a growing labour force.
Both US President Barack Obama and Rohani have invested time and effort in the Vienna agreement. For Obama, this is essentially a legacy issue, fulfilling an original election pledge of engaging Iran. For Rohani, it’s just the beginning.