5 things to know about Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani

June 17, 2013

Hassan Rouhani casts his ballot during the Friday presidential vote. (Vahid Salemi/AP)

Iranian officials announced Saturday that Hassan Rouhani, perhaps the most moderate candidate in the country's six-way presidential race, had won the votes to replace President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Young Iranians filled the streets in celebration, a striking contrast with the protests and crackdowns that followed 2009's disputed election. Though observers in and outside of Iran are watching with hope that Rouhani will make good on his promises to change the country's path, while others suspect he merely represents more of the same, we can't yet know for sure what he wants or if he's even capable of achieving it.

As the world watches Rouhani, here are five things to know about Iran's incoming new president.

(1) He's seen as predisposed to diplomacy and pragmatism, including on the nuclear program.

Don't expect him to shut down the centrifuges or declare a unilateral surrender to the United States. But Rouhani has a record of diplomatic outreach and even making significant concessions. His work as the country's lead negotiator from 2003 to 2005 earned him the nickname "diplomatic sheikh" within Iran and included a deal for Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment. During his campaign and victory speech, he called for engagement and for reducing tensions; he's also suggested that he would ease Iran's pre-conditions for any direct talks.

So far, it's just words, but his rhetoric is a significant change from eight years of Ahmadinejad. And it's worth noting that, in the Iranian political context, calling for negotiations with the Americans is not always popular or easy.

(2) He still supports the nuclear program.

This is still Iran, after all, where nuclear enrichment is thought to be popular, seen as a symbol of national greatness and repudiation of foreign meddling. That typically means a peaceful nuclear program, but such Iranian programs as secret underground enrichment have led the West to conclude, with good reason, that the program is designed to at least leave Iran with the ability to build a bomb, if not to actually build it.

Rouhani says he wants a peaceful nuclear program; the question is how far he might want that program to inch toward a bomb. He's long argued for engaging diplomatically with the West over Iran's nuclear program and seeking compromise. But he's also suggested that this compromise can help give Iran time to continue enrichment.

(3) Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is in charge of foreign policy and the nuclear program.

Khamenei has appeared assiduously hard-line on both nuclear development and his stance toward the U.S.; he ultimately sets policy on both. Rouhani, as president, is not powerless: He can sway Tehran's internal discussion, which appears divided on talking to Washington, and by populating the government's agencies and bodies has some leeway in enacting policy.

(4) Any change will be incremental, and he's not yet proven himself a reformist.

As The Washington Post's Jason Rezaian notes today from Tehran, Rouhani is a "disciplined" insider with many years of deep experience navigating Iranian politics, which still includes a number of conservatives. That bodes will for his ability to bring change but, perhaps more importantly, is a sign that any change will likely be moderate and quite gradual. Those hoping for overnight transformation will be disappointed.

(5) His election is mostly about domestic Iranian issues.

It's easy to lose sight of this but Rouhani's campaign and his supporters have appeared to concern themselves much more with domestic issues, particularly the economy, than with foreign policy. This is true of just all about all elections and political campaigns the world over, of course, but it bears repeating here.

Where this matters for the U.S. is the degree to which Rouhani and his government link domestic and foreign policy issues: It's not hard to draw a straight line from the nuclear program to international sanctions to Iran's runaway inflation. Many of Iran's conservatives have refused to make this connection, arguing either that Iran can bypass sanctions or that the West is not interested in fair, honest negotiations. If Rouhani wants and is able to compromise on the nuclear program as a way to ease his suffering economy, that's where his interests and those of the United State could line up.

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