By Michael Nayebi-Oskoui and Kamran Bokhari
JUNE 18, 2013
Iranians went to the polls Friday to elect outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's successor. Candidates reported few serious problems with the process, and the losers sent congratulations to the eventual winner, Hassan Rouhani.
Compared to the political instability that followed Ahmadinejad's 2009 re-election, this process was relatively boring. But however the news media felt about the election, Iran needs domestic stability if it is going to change its foreign policy in a very challenging geopolitical environment.
Domestic stability has been the first goal for any regime that would project power from Iran's central highlands. The Persian Empire first emerged only after a central power subjugated the various groups of Indo-Iranian, Turkic and Semitic peoples within its borders. The suppression of 2009's Green Movement is only a recent example of a strong state apparatus quelling internal dissent. For millennia, various Persian regimes have sought to keep such domestic pressures at bay while foreign powers have sought to exacerbate these tensions to distract Iran or make it vulnerable to invasion.
In today's Iran, structural economic stresses that have persisted under decades of sanctions are coming to a head while sectarian competition in the region has halted the expansion of Tehran's regional influence. The clerical regime that currently rules the Iranian mountain fortress understands the threats from beyond its borders, but like its predecessors, it must make peace at home before it can address external challenges.
Much of the Western, and especially U.S., coverage of the Iranian elections centered on Rouhani, a figure known to many in the West. He took part in the Islamic Revolution and had ties to Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic republic. He also has ties to Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran's second clerical president, and is a representative of the current supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, on the Supreme National Security Council. Rouhani served as secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council for 16 years. As an extension of this position, he was Iran's chief nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005. It was during this period when Rouhani's foreign policy credentials became best known in the United States and Europe. It was also during this period when Western and Iranian nuclear negotiators came closest to reaching a deal.
Paradoxically, Rouhani combines conservative and reformist tendencies. As a cleric, he does not seek fundamental changes in Iran's power structure of the sort Ahmadinejad sought, but he also advocates cooperation with, and outreach to, other branches of Iran's power structure such as the military and civilian politicians. While defending Iran's nuclear program and regional agenda, he understands that simply issuing ultimatums to the West and escalating tensions rather than striking compromises will not win relief from sanctions. In this regard, he resembles the reformist former President Mohammed Khatami, under whom Rouhani served as chief nuclear negotiator. Rouhani can be expected to adopt a less incendiary tone in foreign policy than Ahmadinejad and to cooperate with other domestic power centers, like those of the supreme leader and the military and security forces.