Will Rowhani change Iran?

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

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A few weeks ago, Saeed Jalili – the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator – as well as Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf – a professor and former military and police commander – were gaining momentum in their presidential campaign. Nevertheless, the last few crucial developments during the 2013 election race shifted this momentum in favor of Hassan Rowhani’s presidential bid.

Hassan Rowhani was the only cleric among the six-candidate presidential field, as well as a member of the Supreme National Security Council, the Assembly of Experts since 1999, and the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Expediency Council since 1991. During the three consecutive televised national debates in Iran, it was Rowhani who was capable of winning the hearts and minds of the reformists. He firmly criticized the other five conservative candidates, particularly Jalili and Ghalibaf, for their strict stance on major issues, such as Iran’s nuclear program, Iran’s diplomatic, strategic, economic and geopolitical ties with the rest of the world, and Iran’s deteriorating economic policies implemented by the conservatives.

And then there was one

In addition, the withdrawal of the only reformist, Mohammad Reza Aref, from the 2013 presidential race – upon the request of the former reformist president Mohammad Khatami – significantly altered the equation in favor of Rowhani. Within these developments, the endorsement of Rowhani by the ex-presidents, Khatami and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, galvanized the support of the reformists to coalesce around the centrist and moderate candidate, Rowhani.

Rowhani can be considered as one of the founding members of the current political structure under the Islamic Republic of Iran

Majid Rafizadeh

The first major question raised is how and whether Rowhani will have the power to change Iran’s domestic and foreign policies. During a time in which the country is encountering an unprecedented level of regional and international isolation as well as four rounds of economic sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy and significantly devaluated its currency (currently, one dollar equals approximately 38,900 Iranian rials), this question is particularly pressing. The second crucial question addresses the personality of Rowhani; who is Iran’s newest president and what personal or political characteristics does he possess?

Rowhani can be considered as one of the founding members of the current political structure under the Islamic Republic of Iran. In his early ages as a teen, he took courses in religious studies and participated in anti-Shah and anti-monarchy campaigns as well as various sermons. He caught the attention of Ayatollah Rooh Allah Khomeini – the leader of the 1979 Islamic Revolution – when he became an outspoken protester against the Shah’s monarchy. According to his campaign biography, Rowhani later studied at Tehran University and obtained a law degree in 1972, as well as continued his education in Glasgow Caledonian University for a master’s degree in legal affairs. While gaining popularity, Rowhani became the mouthpiece of Ayatollah Khomeini.

Political climbing

Rowhani was particularly fast in climbing the political ladder, first serving in Iran’s new parliament and then monitoring the state media. Afterwards, he built a strong friendship with Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and was appointed as Rafsanjani’s top national security adviser during his 1989-97 tenure as president. Later, Rowhani was appointed by the reformist president Mohammad Khatami as the country’s first nuclear negotiator and envoy.

Hassan Rowhani came to a head with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when the latter assumed the presidential office in 2005. After a quarrelsome and controversial meeting with Ahmadinejad, Rowhani resigned from his position as the Islamic Republic of Iran’s top nuclear negotiator. Subsequently, he was labeled a moderate in Iran’s political spectrum and his policies were frequently compared to the ones of the pragmatic ex-president Rafsanjani, also known as “the Shark” in Iran. However, it is crucial to note that based on Rowhani’s political ideologies, he cannot be categorized as being from Iran’s reformist camp.

Considering the misconception, what is Hassan Rowhani’s potential power in influencing the Islamic Republic of Iran’s foreign policy and domestic policies? Rowhani has argued for more nuanced, pragmatic and sophisticated domestic and foreign policies, and has supported policies similar to those implemented during the era of Rafsanjani. However, it is crucial to note that although Rowhani calls for softer language when interacting with the West regarding Iran’s nuclear enrichment, its record of human rights abuses, and its support of Assad’s regime, and although he rejects the combative, controversial and provocative tone that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad employed, Rowhani’s stance on major foreign policy stances do not differ from the position of the conservatives or the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and his establishments such as Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps.

Finally, Hassan Rowhani might be capable of appointing governors and cabinet members, as well as slightly directing Iran’s domestic economic policies. Yet, when it comes to Iran’s major domestic and foreign policy issues, this power is not rested in the hands of Rowhani, Iran’s newest president, but rather in the hands of the supreme leader and his loyal guards and establishments.


Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is an Iranian-American scholar, author and U.S. foreign policy specialist. Rafizadeh is the president of the International American Council. He serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University and Harvard International Relations Council. He is a member of the Gulf 2000 Project at Columbia University, School of International and Public Affairs. Previously he served as ambassador to the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC.

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