Iran’s new president is more cautious than reformist

June 16, 2013

This capital city was calm on Sunday after a long night of spontaneous street celebrations following the surprise victory of president-elect Hassan Rouhani, a cleric whose moderate views have inspired hope among Iranians eager for new personal freedoms and quick social change.

But those voters are likely to be disappointed, at least in the short term, as Rouhani sends signals that his agenda will instead be dominated by measured efforts to revive Iran’s sagging economy and improve its relations with the rest of the world.

“Rouhani’s victory in 2013 is the Iranian equivalent to Obama’s victory in 2008: an electorate that voted overwhelmingly for hope and change, understanding that the process will be a marathon, not a sprint,” said Reza Marashi, research director at the National Iranian American Council in Washington.

Days before his election, Rouhani pledged to return value to the plummeting Iranian currency and “respect” to Iranian passports — a reference to the very limited number of countries to which Iranians can travel visa-free. And on Sunday, Rouhani said he had made his first policy-shaping move by discussing economic woes and living conditions with Ali Larijani, head of Iran’s majority-conservative parliament.

There were early indications that Rouhani’s win could be a stabilizing force on Sunday, as the battered Iranian rial rebounded 5 percent against the dollar, a sign that the country’s business community had also been buoyed by the election results. But Rouhani warned that the economy, wounded by Iran’s mismanagement of oil wealth and international sanctions over the country’s nuclear program, would not recover immediately.

“Although our problems won’t be solved overnight, we must work on them gradually and in consultation with experts,” Rouhani said, according to the semi-official ISNA news agency.

Rouhani’s supporters tout his diplomatic skills and prospects for unifying Iran’s polarized political landscape. But as a onetime holder of top positions in Iran’s most important ministries, a lawmaker for 20 years and a former lead nuclear negotiator, he is also the definition of an Islamic republic insider. That has made him adept at navigating the many competing centers of Iranian power — and disinclined to rock the boat.

On Sunday, state television reported that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who retains the final word on Iranian policy, including its nuclear program, issued “necessary guidelines” to Rouhani during their first meeting since the Friday vote. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, an elite military branch that controls vast wealth, said that it is ready for “complete cooperation with the new government in the framework of its responsibilities,” an oblique message to Rouhani that it will not be an impediment as long as he does not overstep boundaries.

According to ISNA, Rouhani described his meeting with Larijani as “the first step today in creating cooperation between the two branches in the near future,” an apparent reference to years of tension between the parliament and the outgoing administration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In images broadcast on state television, Rouhani and Larijani — also a former lead nuclear negotiator — appeared comfortable together and pledged to work hand in hand to lower unemployment and stabilize rampant inflation, which official statistics placed at more than 30 percent last month.

Neither the reform movement that began in the 1990s nor the conservative current that has dominated Iranian politics over the past eight years has succeeded in fully implementing its agendas, and Rouhani’s early moves seemed to signal a strategy of bridging those divides.

On Saturday, Rouhani, who captured 51 percent in a field of six candidates, called his lopsided win a “victory of moderation over extremism.”

“I hope even those who voted for other candidates consider me fit to serve them, because I consider myself protector of the rights of all people of Iran,” he said in a victory statement.


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On Sunday, domestic media ran scathing editorials about the inability of conservatives — known here as principlists — to work together and their lack of results as leaders.

“Principlists must be defeated so the wave of change can start blowing in this country,” wrote the editors of the Tabnak Web site, which is affiliated with one of the conservative candidates whom Rouhani defeated, Mohsen Rezaie.

Early pledges of cooperation from a range of competing factions indicated that Rouhani might have the political capital to become a unifier. Even conservatives emphasized moderation.

Conservative lawmaker Ali Motahhari said he hoped the president-elect “includes conservatives in his cabinet and that it is a mix of moderate principlists and moderate reformists, becoming the symbol of moderation.”

But moderation might disappoint the tens of thousands who poured into streets across Iran on Saturday night, many of whom chanted the names and slogans of Iran’s opposition leaders.

While campaigning, Rouhani pledged to address Iran’s policies on women and minority rights, social restrictions and access to information. He also vowed to work to free political prisoners, and many supporters of the reform movement are waiting to see how he handles the house arrests of Mehdi Karoubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi, the leaders of the protest movement that followed Iran’s disputed 2009 elections.

“I really don’t think he can do much to fix the economy, because there are so many factors involved, but I do expect him to do something about social restrictions as he promised he would,” said Marjan, 32, a high school teacher and Rouhani supporter who declined to provide her last name, fearing government reprisal.

Jason Rezaian has been The Post’s correspondent in Tehran since 2012. He was previously a freelance writer based in Tehran.
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