The outpouring of relief with which the election of Hassan Rouhani has been greeted in most of the West has been striking. Descriptions of him as a moderate and a reformist abound, although the reality is far from the spin: It is true that he is less abrasive than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the man he replaces as president, but whether he represents a change from the past is more obscure. For those in the region, who are far more familiar with the facts and to whom the issues are rather more pressing, caution is the order of the day.
Three issues have bearing on whether Rouhani is a new broom, or merely (as Ahmadinejad initially styled himself) the loyal sweeper of the Rahbar, or “leader,” as the constitution calls the office occupied by Ayatollah Khamenei. The first is Rouhani’s own philosophy, the second his level of control in the complex skein of power in the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the third is the ability (and willingness) of the Iranian ship of state to alter course radically in a short time.
To understand the man, it helps to look at some of his formative experiences. Rouhani comes from a religious family, but rejected the apolitical quietism of his religious mentors for the extreme activism of the doctrine espoused by Ayatollah Khomeini, velayat-e faqih. Indeed, he was an early follower of Khomeini, and one of the first to refer to him as “Imam.” He is thus a dyed in the wool proponent of Twelver Shi’a religious leadership. He studied for a Master’s degree and then a doctorate at a British University, but studying issues of Shi’a jurisprudence, rather than a topic of wider relevance. He was also secretary of the Iranian National Security Council from 1989–2005, and was the regime’s chief nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005. Is such a leopard likely to change the spots of a lifetime?
Although rather more nuanced—and fluid—than often portrayed in the Western media, decisive power in Iran is concentrated in the hands of Ayatollah Khamenei, the rahbar of Iran (while his actual power is in theory decisive, like many such political leaders, he aims to shape elite opinion such that the consensus meets with his approval, which he then bestows). The ability of the president to change the direction of policy is thus highly limited, as demonstrated by President Khatami’s terms in office: a reformist who was unable to effect much reform due to opposition from conservative factions within the elite. Similarly, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s ability to alter Iranian foreign policy was constrained by the same forces—albeit in the opposite direction. For those in the region, the enduring presence, and political dominance, of the rahbar offers little hope of change. It should, however, be noted that Khamenei is in his seventies, and not in the best of health. Were he to die while Rouhani was in office, the power centers, and thus foreign policy, might change.
There is also the issue of political inertia. It is very hard for an incumbent to change the policies of his predecessors, as President Obama has discovered with various controversial national security policies instituted under the Bush presidency. This is particularly so with permanent “national interests,” of which Iran has many which endure from the days of the shah.
The Arabs, who were often on the receiving end of imperial policy, have seen little difference in the imperious policies of the Islamic Republic. The cant originating from Iran may now be Shi’ite rather than Persian in vocabulary, but the intention for (and assumption of natural) hegemony remains the same now as it was before the Iranian Revolution. The Arabs—particularly the Sunni Arabs—are under no illusions that the Iranian state will withdraw its subtle, and not so subtle) tentacles from the wider MENA region (nor from the Indian Ocean littoral, nor West Africa). Most obviously, Iran styled Bahrain the 14th province under the shah; a description periodically resurrected under the Islamic Republic.
While it is doubtless tempting for the West to regard the end of Ahmadinejad’s tenure as ushering in a reformist, and man with whom they can do business (as Reagan felt of Gorbachev), wiser heads will see Rouhani as merely a more palatable expression of the same mentality. For the Arabs, who have known Persian assertiveness and Twelver Shi’a propagation down the ages, there is little new under the sun. Let us hope that their reticence is over-cautious.