Can Iranian President Hassan Rouhani live up to reformist pledges?

Iranian moderates gleefully shout “Ahmadi Bye Bye” as they joyously take to the streets to celebrate the victory of President-elect Hassan Rouhani, who avoided an electoral run-off by winning over 50 percent of the votes.

The cleric’s supporters have great hopes for the future, believing the country is poised for a bright, new chapter based on Rouhani’s campaign pledges to work for “rationality, moderation, peace and stability.” He says he plans to improve Iran’s relations with the West and will make efforts to put the economy, currently at an all time low, on a stable footing.

The surprise result proves that the Iranian people are hungry for change, but will he be free to deliver meaningful and much-needed economic, social and foreign policy reforms?

Author Trita Parsi, who is president of the National Iranian American Council, sounds cautiously optimistic. “Contrary to the clear efforts by the ruling elites to secure a conservative victory, the only centrist/reformist candidate in the race appears to have won a stunning victory,” he says, adding that “the Western narrative stating that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the IRGC [Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps] are all powerful needs to be revisited.”

He emphasises that while “hardliners remain in control of key aspects of Iran’s political system, the centrists and reformists have proven that even when the cards are stacked against them, they can prevail due to their support among the population.”

Rouhani, the 65-year-old multilingual and former chief nuclear negotiator, who earned the nickname ‘The Diplomat Shaikh,’ enjoys the backing of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami—two former reformist Iranian presidents critical of the fiery outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He describes his win as a victory for moderation over extremism. He comes with sturdy diplomatic credentials.

Former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told BBC 4 that Britain could do business with Rouhani, while characterising the new leader as an experienced diplomat “who’s tough, but fair to deal with and always on top of his brief.”

“On a personal level, I found him warm and engaging,” he said.

A graduate from Glasgow Caledonian University with a PhD in law, Rouhani is a proponent of civil rights who advocates for greater freedom of speech and press freedoms. “I’m obliged to defend people’s rights to freedom of speech, participation in parties and preservation of their ethnicity,” he says, which if he’s sincere, could be good news for Iran’s oppressed Ahwazi Arabs whose culture is slowly being eroded by government punishments against those who decline to give their newborns Persian names.

Iran’s Sunni minority, making up 9 per cent of the population, who say they’re treated as second class citizens may finally glimpse a flicker of light. He is also championing equal rights for women with a promise to introduce a Women’s Affairs Ministry.

Internally, he will be given limited leeway to implement his stated policy goals but on foreign policy he will still have to bend to the will of Iran’s unelected Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. If he wants to avoid the fate of his more liberal predecessors who attempted to push the envelope on reform only to be thwarted by conservatives, he has to walk on eggshells.

He cannot be seen as challenging the Supreme Leader’s authority. If his statement, “Iran’s foreign policy should be placed in the hands of skilled, experienced people—not people who do not know what they’re talking about,” adding, “It is very good for nuclear centrifuges to spin, it is also good for the lives of people to spin,” is a precursor of things to come, he may land in hot water even before his presidential term begins in August.

Reading between the lines, although Rouhani is a patriot who’s proud of his nation’s alleged peaceful nuclear programme, he is willing to change the tone and may be open to compromise to get crippling anti-Iranian Western sanctions lifted; sanctions that are negatively impacting standards of living and embattling the Iranian currency, resulting in soaring inflation and rising unemployment. But even if he succeeds in quelling the international community’s concerns over the nuclear issue, he is likely to be taken to task on Iran and Hezbollah’s material support of the Syrian regime that is tipping the balance in Bashar Al Assad’s favour.

Ahmadinejad’s exit from power should be welcomed; his arrogant, abrasive approach towards the US only poisoned the atmosphere and his Holocaust denial was greatly perceived within Iran as an embarrassment. But no one should get too excited by his successor whose hands will still be tied and who is, after all, a Khomeini loyalist who joined Ayatollah Khomeini during his exile in Paris. The question is will Rouhani determinedly go where Rafsanjani and Khatami feared to tread? Or will he throw in his reformist towel when the going gets tough, thrusting Iranian moderates back to square one? Time will tell.

Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at

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