A bizarre fact of modern life is that Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is a regular tweeter. Just before the presidential election on 14 June 2013, this message appeared on his Twitter page: “a vote for any of these candidates is a vote for the Islamic Republic [and] a vote of confidence in the system.”
Believe it. He made the statement with assurance, knowing better than anyone that the forthcoming election was pretty much of a charade. No less than 39 men registered originally as candidates (the very idea of a woman putting herself forward as a potential president being outside the realms of the conceivable). Each was then subjected to rigorous scrutiny by the Guardian Council – the unelected but supremely powerful body positioned at the very heart of Iran’s body politic. The Guardian Council, which is able to veto any legislation passed by the Iranian parliament, is also empowered to bar candidates from standing in any election.
As a result of their scrutiny, no less than 33 of the candidates who had registered were barred on various grounds from standing, and a meagre six finally presented themselves to the electorate. All six, Rohani among them, had cleared all the hurdles – total loyalty to the régime, namely to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and complete adherence to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. In Rohani’s case, his loyalty was underwritten by more than twenty years as part of Iran’s vicious national security establishment, while his nuclear credentials as Iran’s top nuclear negotiator spoke for themselves – he it was who had held the UN, and indeed the West, at bay with soft words for month after month, while allowing Iran’s uranium enrichment programme to forge ahead.
The charm offensive, which worked so well in keeping the UN at arm’s length during Iran’s nuclear negotiations, worked equally well for Rohani during the presidential campaign. Khamenei had his reasons for allowing this man into the race speaking, as he did, of liberating society, promoting freedom of expression, freeing political prisoners and opening a dialogue with the West which could lead to an easing of the sanctions that had recently been biting hard. No doubt the Supreme Leader had in mind the near-revolt that followed the previous presidential election, when arch-conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had been shoe-horned back into the presidency for a second term.
If the Supreme Leader believed that sweet words during the election would deflect popular discontent after it, he was more than justified. Rohani’s spectacular trouncing of his opponents demonstrated the strength of feeling within the country for some loosening of the restrictions, both religious and economic, that have been oppressing the nation.
The extent to which Rohani can turn his honeyed words into action – assuming he wishes to do so – is extremely limited. In the domestic arena he would be subject to the restrictions placed on him by the Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The IRGC, founded in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution to defend the Islamic Republic against internal and external threats, today presides over a vast power structure dominating almost every aspect of Iranian life. More than 100,000 strong, the IRGC is in entire control of Iran’s military operations, but also manipulates the nation’s strategic industries, commercial services, and black-market enterprises.
Rohani will know that he needs to mind his Ps and Qs as far as the IRGC is concerned. In 1999 the Revolutionary Guard sent a threatening letter to President Khatami, who instituted far-reaching reforms, in which they warned against continuing a policy that threatened the Islamic nature of the régime.
In the foreign policy field Rohani’s freedom of manoeuvre is virtually non-existent. Rohani does not formulate Iran’s foreign and nuclear policy; it is dictated by the Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guard. No problem here, though, since there is no reason to believe that Rohani dissents in any way from either Iran’s nuclear aspirations nor its ultimate aim to achieve regional hegemony.
Nevertheless many leaders and opinion formers in the West have seized on Rohani’s election as on a gift from heaven – a chance to avoid grasping the nettle of Iran’s unacceptable ambitions and to by-pass outright confrontation. The 24-hour TV news screens have been filled with optimistic spokesmen equating the Iranian presidential vote to some democratic expression of the people’s will, although a truer picture would be an electorate making the best of a bad job.
“Iran’s new president is brave and outspoken,” trumpets Norman Lamont, one-time British Chancellor of the Exchequer and now a member of the House of Lords. “The West should see him as a Gorbachev. Hassan Rohani is a man we must do business with.”
His is far from a lone voice. The European Union's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who chairs the nuclear talks between Iran and major powers, said voters had given Rohani "a strong mandate".
"I remain firmly committed to working with the new Iranian leadership towards a swift diplomatic solution of the nuclear issue."
The White House said: “We respect the vote of the Iranian people and congratulate them for their participation in the political process, and their courage in making their voices heard. It is our hope that the Iranian government will heed the will of the Iranian people and make responsible choices that create a better future for all Iranians."
Rohani is scheduled to take office on August 3, 2013. If thereafter the world observes a softening of current policies in Iran, either domestically, or – as reported in the world’s press on June 19 – by a possible suspension of 20 per cent uranium enrichment, then assuredly it would be because the Supreme Leader has judged it opportune to use the election of “moderate” Hassan Rohani in this way to strengthen his régime’s grip on the nation and further advance its unaltered policies.
Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line edition, 23 June 2013:
Published in the Eurasia Review, 19 June 2013: