In his memoir, Rouhani implies that, since the death of the grand ayatollah, the country has at times been adrift, indecisive. “Few are willing to take on the burden of difficult national decisions,” he writes, “for they know that those without such responsibility will loudly rebuke and slander them, causing the public to lose confidence in the system.” This is a lament of a politician seeking to solve problems in a tough environment.
However, Rouhani’s case is not without its contradictions. He insists that Iran can expand its nuclear program while reclaiming its commercial contracts, even though today Iran stands in violation of numerous Security Council resolutions and cannot reenter the global economy until it meets U.N. demands. Tone and style matter, but what awaits President Rouhani is the hard trade-off of dispensing with critical aspects of the program in exchange for relief from sanctions. (After a decade of desultory diplomacy, the West is unlikely to settle for his pledge of greater nuclear transparency.)
Given how easily Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei dispensed with the theocracy’s previous presidents, the question hovering over Rouhani is clear: How much power will he really have? Even in Iran’s congested political order, the office of the presidency is consequential. Presidents staff ministries, formulate budgets, and have a say on national security. Yet in Rouhani’s nearly 700-page book, Khatami largely fades from the scene; he is often consulted but not always heeded. On critical issues — the nuclear imbroglio, the challenges of the post-2001 Middle East — Khatami remains in the background, often the government’s public face but rarely its most influential voice.
The presidency’s limitations are compounded by the fact that Rouhani is assuming power at a time when Iran is locked in multiple confrontations. Domestically, aggrieved conservatives are likely to regroup and challenge him since the presidency has escaped their grasp. Abroad, much has changed since 2003, when Rouhani first wrestled with the nuclear issue. At that time, he was seeking to preserve what Iran did not yet have; today he will be pressed to sustain its considerable gains. And then there is the sectarian cold war that is uneasily descending on the Middle East, pitting Iran and its Shiite allies against Saudi Arabia and the Sunni bloc. This conflict is playing out in Iraq, Lebanon and, of course, Syria. Rouhani may seek to inject a measure of pragmatism into Iran’s foreign relations, but he will find himself constrained by circumstances beyond his control.
In the past, when Iran’s contending factions commanded different state institutions, the theocracy rarely cobbled together a lasting consensus. Iran spoke in multiple languages as pragmatism and ideology pressed the state in different directions. Promises made by the president were often negated by the supreme leader, and the Foreign Ministry’s moderation was belied by the Revolutionary Guards’ terrorism. Who spoke for Iran was a question that bedeviled the clerical regime’s most patient interlocutors.
Should Rouhani manage to assert his authority over the Islamic republic’s multiple power centers, he will truly become a transformational president. But that burden is his alone, and there is not much America can do to ease his path.
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