Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Will Rouhani salvage Iran from the damages done by his predecessor?

Mr Rouhani is not a reformist or a political renegade who would try to change the system. He comes from within the system and has long been loyal to the Supreme Leader.

With the centrist cleric Hassan Rouhani set to assume office today as Iran's president, the Iranian people will bid farewell to the hardliner and incendiary former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who originally won the support of the poor and hardliners and fuelled hopes for reform and progress.

Many questions have been raised regarding Mr Ahmadinejad's legacy spanning his eight years in office. Western political leaders and some Iranians are also speculating whether Mr Rouhani would be able to deliver competent and efficient domestic and foreign-policy solutions to free Tehran from sanctions, isolation and the weak economy, left behind by his predecessor.

Mr Ahmadinejad, who ran his second presidential campaign in a style similar to that of Barack Obama, the US president, with the slogan "we can", or "ma mitavanim", leaves behind a crumbling economy. Iran's unemployment has doubled to 13 per cent (unofficial statistics claim approximately 23 per cent), inflation has tripled to 32 per cent and economic growth has shrunk to 0.8 per cent, which is well short of the eight per cent target growth set by Iran's fifth development plan from 2010-2015. The International Monetary Fund has projected that the Islamic Republic's economy will further shrink by 1.3 per cent in 2013.

Mr Ahmadinejad altered the economic policies of the former reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, who focused on investing the oil revenue between 2000 and 2004 in the Oil Stabilization Fund to boost private-sector investment. Mr Ahmadinejad, however, preferred to replace state subsidies of basic items such as petrol, flour and bread with cash payouts and handouts. While the private sector was squeezed by economic mismanagement and sanctions, and while the government became short of development resources and budget, unemployment, inflation, currency devaluation and economic crisis paralysed the rest of the country.

Furthermore, by passing rigid, conservative and constraining laws, Mr Ahmadinejad's administration strengthened the power of the moral police, Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps, the intelligence organisation Etela'at and the Basij, a semi-militia organisation. Freedom of speech, press and assembly became more restricted under Mr Ahmadinejad's eight years of presidency compared to his predecessor, Mr Khatami. The number of political prisoners - including founding members of the Islamic Republic such as Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi - exponentially increased. More journalists and activists were arrested. Torture and executions rose (according to Human Rights Watch) and most reformist newspapers were shut down.

In terms of foreign policy, while Mr Khatami was capable of convincing the international community and the UN Security Council not to impose sanctions on the country, Iran witnessed a record number of economic curbs under Mr Ahmadinejad's rule. His foreign-policy mismanagements, coupled with his inflammatory and controversial speeches - such as the denial of the Holocaust, the claim that September 11 was an inside operation orchestrated by the US, the threat to wipe Israel off the world map and the claim that there is no gay population in Iran - contributed to dragging Iran into an unprecedented regional and international isolation.

Will Mr Rouhani be able to alleviate the damages inflicted primarily by the government on the Iranian population? Thus far, it is clear that Mr Rouhani prefers to apply a softer tone in the regional and international arenas in comparison to that of his predecessor.

He might also attempt to project Tehran as a more "rational" political actor and avoid provoking political leaders, which might help to reduce isolation and economic sanctions by the UN Security Council.

Domestically, Mr Rouhani can also decrease subsidies and handouts that are not paid for by the budget. In addition, he might attempt to increase interest rates so as to reduce inflation and help raise the value of the rial.

However, despite hopes of some progress, Mr Rouhani is less likely to be capable of saving the country from regional and global isolation and economic sanctions, or relieving the Iranian people of repressive laws and lack of freedom of expression, mainly due to two reasons. First, economic sanctions are primarily connected to Iran's nuclear programme. While Mr Khatami was a reformist and agreed to halting the programme, Mr Rouhani is not from inside the reformist camp (though he has been endorsed by it). His ideological and political perspective as a centrist on the nuclear programme is closer to the hardliners. Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has the power to determine Tehran's nuclear enrichment. Iran's foreign policy and major domestic policies are directly guided and controlled by the Supreme Leader and his establishments: the Revolutionary Guard, Basij and Etela'at.

Secondly, Mr Rouhani is not a reformist or a political renegade who would attempt to change the system. He comes from within the system and has long been loyal to the Supreme Leader.


Dr Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American scholar and political analyst, is president of the International American Council on the Middle East