Statement on the Election of Hassan Rouhani as President of Iran
by National Iranian American Council (NIAC)
The election of Hassan Rouhani to be the next President of Iran signals a potential opening for progress on human rights inside Iran as well as nuclear diplomacy. The lone moderate in the race, Rouhani has criticized the securitized environment in Iran and indicated he will work for the release of prisoners of conscience detained after the 2009 elections, including the leaders of the Green Movement, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, who have been under house arrest since 2011. Rouhani, a former nuclear negotiator under former reformist President Khatami, has also called for a more constructive approach to nuclear diplomacy, sharply criticizing the confrontational approach Iran has adopted under President Ahmadinejad and the current nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili.
While Supreme Leader Khamenei is expected to have the final word on major policy decisions, and conservatives are likely to retain control of many key aspects of Iran’s political system, reformists appear to have the backing of the Iranian people and as a result can still prevail in achieving many of their political goals. Many have doubted that the Supreme Leader and his allies would allow a reformist or moderate to win election given the outcome of 2009. If the election of Rouhani stands, the Western narrative stating that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the IRGC are all-powerful needs to be revisited. It would also signal that the underlying forces of discontent with the direction of the country, repression, and mismanagement that surfaced with the Green Movement in 2009 are still intact as they manifested again with the election of Rouhani.
Rouhani is likely to try to deliver on many of his campaign promises, including to relax the securitized political atmosphere and to take a more constructive approach to nuclear negotiations. But the reaction of the United States and the West could make or break Rouhani and the reformists’ ability to push for change in Iran. Particularly, if the Obama administration and Congress persist in amplifying economic sanctions on Iran, it could undermine prospects of a deal before Rouhani is even inaugurated. Now is the time to give forces for moderation in Iran space and put major sanctions relief, including for Iran’s oil and financial sectors, on the table.
The Iranians missed a major opportunity in 2009 when they assumed that President Barack Obama would be no different from previous US leaders and then acted according to that assumption. Tehran’s non-responsiveness rendered Obama’s job to change the relationship more difficult. Washington should be careful not to commit that same mistake.