Iran: One year under Rowhani the pragmatist

His campaign promised and promoted the slogans of "Government of Prudence and Hope" and “ moderation and wisdom".

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President Hassan Rowhani’s presidency endorsement by the constitutionally-mandated and appointed 12-members of the conservative Guardian Council, his endorsement of former president Rafsanjani, his promises of bringing "dignity” to the nation, freeing political prisoners, promoting civil rights, normalcy and reintegrating Iran in the world economically and politically, struck a chord with many Iranian people.

Rowhani’s relative acceptance and legitimacy within Iran’s political spectrum (the hardliners, conservatives, moderate, principalists – Osulgarayan- and reformists), his loyalty to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Iran’s revolutionary principles, his background as a government insider and chief nuclear negotiator, the blessings of the Supreme Leader for him and the need for change after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, placed Rowhani in a unique position last year for the presidency.

Avoiding extremist political and economic positions, categorized as a pragmatic, moderate, realist and centrist in the political realm, campaigning for “Prudence and Hope” (tadbir va omid), advocating for normalcy, attempting to merge the Islamic Republic’s ideology and, principles with its economic and national interests, has defined President Rowhani as the “Diplomatic Sheikh”.

rouhani reuters 3
rouhani reuters 3

All the aforementioned promises, coupled with years of a deteriorating economy, high inflation, double-digit unemployment figures, severe international economic and political sanctions, as well as a domestic crack down, human rights violations and lack of freedoms of assembly, press, and speech, the expectations from President Hassan Rowhani were high domestically, regionally and internationally.

Almost a year to the day, President Hassan Rowhani, a pragmatist government insider, took the oath and assumed the office of the presidency after he was unexpectedly elected as president of the Islamic Republic by winning more votes than the five other hardliner candidates put together.

His campaign promised and promoted the slogans of "Government of Prudence and Hope" and “ moderation and wisdom”, which were found appealing to many, domestically and internationally. Crowds of Iranian people celebrated Rowhani’s landslide victory.

Iranians celebrate the victory of moderate presidential candidate Hassan Rowhani (portrait) in the presidential elections at Vanak Square, in northern Tehran, on June 15, 2013. (AFP)
Iranians celebrate the victory of moderate presidential candidate Hassan Rowhani (portrait) in the presidential elections at Vanak Square, in northern Tehran, on June 15, 2013. (AFP)

How has President Rowhani addressed the critical issues on Tehran’s agenda in his first year and has he succeeded in fulfilling his promises?

To his credit, Rowhani’s policies on rapprochement with the West and stance on Iran’s nuclear program has alleviated the threat partially.

According to the International Monetary Fund, the Islamic Republic’s economy has been stabilized and has grown by one to two percent, rather than contracting. In addition, this growth is predicted to increase in the near future. In addition, Iran’s oil exports have increased by approximately 25 percent, specifically to Asian countries, in the first six months of the year 2014.

In the first year under his presidency, President Hassan Rowhani’s strategy has primarily focused on spending a significant amount of political capital on foreign policy rather than domestic policies, attempting to remove the damages that former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad caused, putting moderations on the Islamic Republic’s ideology, removing the threat against the hold-on-power of the ruling government, and avoiding antagonizing the hardliners and conservatives in Iran in order to achieve the nuclear objectives, remove the economic sanctions and gain long and short term benefits.

Rapprochement with the West

On the other hand, by striking the nuclear interim deal with the P5+1 (the United States, Russia, France, China, the United Kingdom, plus Germany), President Hassan Rowhani and his technocrat nuclear team were successful in obtaining sanctions relief-- worth about $7 billion – and suspending certain sanctions against some Iranian sectors including the automotive sector, gold and precious metals trade and petrochemical exports.

From the perspective of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the senior cadre of the Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, there was a need for a President who can address these threats by carrying out policies that contribute to removing the sanctions against the Islamic Republic and stabilize the economy.

With regards to diplomatic headways and the relationships between the Islamic Republic and the United States, Rowhani managed to break several taboos in the Islamic Republic including the historic phone call between him and President Barack Obama. Currently, officials from Iran and the US regularly speak with each other either in nuclear talks in Europe or through various social networks.

In addition, President Hassan Rowhani’s administration has managed to normalize diplomatic relationships with the United Kingdom after the British embassy in Tehran was stormed by students in November 2011. As a result, the UK has reopened its embassy in Tehran.

In terms of the domestic economy, Rowhani’s administration carried out some fiscal and monetary policies such as removing some of the subsidies and increasing the prices in the energy sector.

The latest survey on Iran’s economy, by the International Monetary Fund, points out that “Iran has taken important steps to lower inflation… The Islamic Republic of Iran has made progress toward stabilizing its economy in recent months…” In addition, according to the Bloomberg Businessweek , the Iran Project Director at the IMF Middle East and Central Asia department, Masood Ahmed, said to reporters in Tehran last week that: “The process of stabilization has taken hold and we do see the results already in a dramatic improvement in inflation. Inflation rate has eased and currency rate has been stable and such improvements are the results of measures taken by the Iranian government…”

According to the IMF report, inflation in the Islamic Republic has significantly declined by 29 percent: “The exchange rate has appreciated markedly in the bureau/parallel market. The CBI has kept a lid on base money growth thanks to tighter credit to the banking system and some fiscal consolidation, and inflation has declined to about 29 percent in January 2014.”

One of the most significant challenges for President Hassan Rowhani remains to be charting a way to strike a comprehensive nuclear deal and persuading Iran’s Supreme Leader and hardliners that the Islamic Republic will gain long term economic and political benefits, giving a little, and preserving its rights to nuclear enrichment.

Consistent policies

While President Hassan Rowhani has spent a considerable amount of his political capital on international issues to reintegrate the Islamic Republic in world affairs and and remove economic sanctions, some of the Islamic Republic’s regional policies remained unwavering in the last year .

President Rouhani voiced his support for the Syrian government, as Iran continues to support the Syrian government financially, militarily and politically. Even after the use of chemical weapons against the civilians in Syria, Rowhani’s administration has not shifted its support and policies towards President Bashar al-Assad.

In addition, under Rowhani’s administration, the Islamic Republic continues to support non state regional actors such as Hezbollah and Hamas. Furthermore, the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy towards Israel remains steadfast and consistent.

Domestic politics: human rights, unemployment, and freedoms

Despite the above, the rate of inflation is still around 30 percent , which still posses hardship on eighty million ordinary Iranian people. In addition, the unemployment rate is still in double digits.

When it comes to human rights and freedoms, President Hassan Rowhani has not made progress. According to Human Rights Watch, there has been “no sign of improvement” and the Islamic Republic continues to violate human rights under the presidency of Hassan Rowhani.

rowhani reuters
rowhani reuters

On March 11, Ahmed Shaheed, United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, released his second annual report to the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), saying that there exists an “apparent increase in the degree of seriousness of human rights violations” and expressing concern at the “rate of executions in the country, especially for crimes that do not meet serious crimes standards.”

Last October, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon released his annual report expressing concern with regards to the continuing human rights violations in the Islamic Republic under the presidency of Hassan Rowhani. Human Rights Watch points out that “The government continued to block access to Shaheed and to experts with other U.N. rights bodies.”