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    Middle East
     Jun 17, '13

Rouhani: a consensus on the past
By M K Bhadrakumar

There is going to be some confusion, given the week of insistent brand naming of Iran's president-elect Hassan Rouhani as a "reformist". Is Rouhani a "reformist"? Why else did Iran's former reformist president Mohamed Khatami endorse his candidacy? So, then, he is a protege of Khatami?

That, however, will be stretching things. Rouhani has the honorific title of Hojatoleslam, meaning "authority on Islam". He belongs to the Iranian political and religious establishment, having been for decades a member of the two high-powered bodies which are

stacked with the creme de la creme of the regime - the Assembly of Experts and the Expediency Council. He also headed the Supreme National Security Council from 1989 to 2005.

Rouhani's stellar political career began in the pre-revolutionary era. He was an ardent follower of Imam Khomeini - in fact, he is credited with first using the title "Imam" for Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran's first Supreme Leader.

Rouhani's revolutionary ardor as a young cleric caught Khomeini's attention. He was a member of the Iranian Majlis (parliament) from its inception in 1980 till 2000. In the Majlis, he served as deputy to the then speaker Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. When Rafsanjani became president in 1989, he brought Rouhani into the Security Council. Rafsanjani also got Rouhani into the Expediency Council in 1991 at a time when the president was at the peak of his political power.

Concurrently, Rafsanjani got Rouhani in 1992 to head the Center for Strategic Research, a think tank that plays a seminal role in the making of foreign and security policies and services the Expediency Council.

Rouhani got elected to the Assembly of Experts in 2000 - along with Rafsanjani who had demitted office as president by then. (Rafsanjani became the deputy head of the Assembly of Experts and went on to head it from 2007 to 2011).

By the way, Rouhani continues to be a member of the Assembly of Experts and the Expediency Council as well as the Security Council.

Thus, what emerges is that the Iranian people have elected in a fair election with a big turnout exceeding 70% in the first round itself, with an absolute majority of 50.7%, a candidate who hails from the religious establishment, with impeccable revolutionary pedigree, who enjoys the trust and confidence of the Supreme Leader and could claim to straddle the various factions within the regime.

Rouhani becomes a great "healer" after the highly divisive presidency of Mahmud Ahmadinejad. Rafsanjani promoted his career, but Rouhani retained the trust of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei even after differences began appearing between the two old war-horses, and, evidently, he shares an intellectual and political affinity with Khatami as well.

Rouhani is doubtless a gifted politician who adapts well to the changing circumstances of the Islamic revolution. This trait enabled him to retain the key position as the security adviser under both Rafsanjani and Khatami and also remain as member of both Expediency Council and Assembly of Experts for decades.

From the regime's viewpoint, Rouhani bridged the Rafsanjani and Khatami presidencies. Obviously, he was far too senior a figure to serve in Ahmadinejad's cabinet, and he moved on to become an adviser to Khamenei and his representative in the Security Council.

Mandate for moderation
What explains Rouhani's handsome mandate? First, it is a composite mandate from all sections of Iranian society - urban and rural, middle class and intelligentsia, clerics, bazaar and so on. It is a mandate for national solidarity when the country is passing through acute internal and external dangers, and disunity or fragmentation and polarization could spell danger.

The Iranian voters have always placed primacy on the role of the president in the management of the economy. The mandate for Ahmadinejad too was based on his promise to "bring the oil revenue to the dinner table". The people have vented their anguish over their economic hardships - especially, high inflation and unemployment - and their frustration with the mismanagement of the economy and Iran's growing isolation in the region.

It is important to note that something like two-thirds of voters stated their preference for either Rouhani or Tehran mayor Mohammed Baquer Qalibaf. This is significant because both candidates were considered less as ideologues and more as efficient managers.

The Western world's sanctions have hit the Iranian economy hard. Although the people attribute the sanctions to the hostility of Western powers toward the Islamic Republic (which has a three-decade old history) and they know that the removal of the sanctions is not within the powers of their president, they also realize that an active and creative foreign policy can make the sanctions less effective or even ineffective, which was how life used to be during the Rafsanjani and Khatami presidencies.

Put differently, the mandate for Rouhani is most certainly for a constructive interaction with Iran's neighbors and the international community as a whole, based on the Iranian economy's needs.

Notably, Rouhani's election has been warmly and instantaneously welcomed all across the Persian Gulf region. The United Arab Emirates' president Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan lost no time to greet Rouhani with a message expressing keenness "to forge relations based on cooperation" with Iran.

The US scrambled to greet Rouhani's victory and express the White House's "respect for the vote of the Iranian people", which underscored that they were "determined to act to shape their future". The Obama administration reiterated its readiness to "engage the Iranian government directly". This is a retraction from the callous remark attributed to administration officials earlier that it hardly mattered who won the Iranian presidential election.

Washington has been taken by surprise that Rouhani secured a strong and convincing mandate without having to go into a bruising run-off, which makes him an effective interlocutor.

A leap of faith
But, in reality, does Rouhani's election make a difference to Iran's foreign policy? On the one hand, there is the perception of Rouhani as a dyed-in-the-wool reformer, while on the other hand, Israel is insisting that nothing really has changed in Iran and Obama administration should impose even harsher sanctions.

The truth lies somewhere between. During the campaign, Rouhani unambiguously conveyed that he would pursue nuanced, pragmatic and creative domestic and foreign policies. Although a cleric, Rouhani does not subscribe to hardline social views. Broadly, his statements echoed the policy directions he was instrumental in implementing during the Rafsanjani (and Khatami) presidency.

He held the nuclear portfolio in Khatami's presidency and was assisted by Seyed Hossein Mousavian, who currently lives and works in the US. Evidently, the Obama administration has a fair idea of Rouhani's thinking. Mousavian has been advocating a formula whereby Iran retains its right to enrich uranium under strict International Atomic Energy Agency guarantees that meet with US satisfaction, and in turn Tehran could be "rewarded" with an easing of sanctions and with integration with the international community.

Although an establishment figure, Rouhani was recognized by the world community for his nuanced, conciliatory approach when he was Iran's chief nuclear negotiator under Khatami. But then, Khatami himself was known for such an approach - although, ironically, it was Khatami's Iran that George W Bush chose to declare to be part of the "axis of evil".

The big question, therefore, is how far the Obama administration is prepared to break the crust of the ossified and highly prejudiced view of Iran prevailing among influential sections of the US political elites and how Obama himself will stick out his neck to ignore or defy the Israeli Lobby to take a rational and fresh look at Rouhani's Iran.

In sum, the Obama administration faces a huge challenge in not only taking a leap of faith but in persisting on course, since any improvement of relations with Iran will be a slow and gradual process and the tense climate will not give way easily.

All in all, nothing will be further from the truth to brand Rouhani as a "reformist" who is going to tilt at the windmills of the Iranian regime. He may lack the combative rhetoric of Ahmadinejad or the latter's bombastic posturings on the world stage, and he will have no use for his predecessor's controversial and provocative tone on regional and international issues.

But Rouhani will not be deviationist. It cannot be otherwise. He is far too experienced as an establishment figure to know that in the 1997 election, Khatami won by a landslide margin of 70% of votes but the broad directions of Iran's policies remained on track during his presidency.

Winds of change
Having said that, the thoughts and actions of all the main protagonists here - not only Rafsanjani, Khatami and Rouhani but even other presidential contenders such as Ali Akbar Velayati or Mohammed Aref - have signaled that there is acute awareness among the political elites in Iran that change is necessary both in terms of the country's needs and requirements as well as in terms of the spirit of the times.

The sanctions were the main topic in the election campaign. That helped sharpen the focus on the need for Iran to be more pragmatic in its relations with the world and the urgency to modernize at home.

The crowds that have poured into the heaving Tehran streets to celebrate Rouhani's victory also testify that there are high expectations of change in the popular mood. Rouhani and the collective Iranian leadership cannot but take note.

Rouhani's first remarks after the election victory spell out what is on his mind as a bridge-builder: "This victory is a victory of wisdom, a victory of moderation, a victory of growth and awareness and a victory of commitment over extremism and ill-temper. ... I warmly shake the hands of all moderates, reformists and Principalists [read conservatives]."

Arguably, Khamenei too had a compact with the nation in this election insofar as by providing the candidates the full scope, through media and otherwise in an unprecedented way, to convey their political planks and programs, thereby allowing the interplay of passions before the elections rather than after as had happened in 2009.

The issue today, therefore, narrows down to effecting change within Iran's Islamic system. In a manner of speaking, it is possible to say Iranian politics is taking a look back in order to move forward. Ahmadinejad's legacy turns out to be characterized as the highly divisive presidency, and Iran's voters have reached a consensus that the country cannot move forward without an agreed past.

Thus, paradoxically, even Iran's "third generation" of voters opted for a favorite disciple of Imam Khomeini to lead them. Suffice to say, this election has buried the reformist-conservative split in Iranian politics. The schism has become irrelevant.

M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India's ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).

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