Can Rowhani Bring Iran Back Into The Fold?


Over the weekend, reformist candidate and former chief nuclear negotiator Hassan Rowhani won Iran’s presidential election. He inherits a failing economy and clerical leadership unhappy with his predecessor’s disregard for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s authority.

Despite a late voting rush on Friday which kept polling stations open up to five hours longer than normal, there was a 13 per cent drop in voter turnout from the 2009 election, to 72.7 per cent.

People were clearly still thinking of 2009, with chants of “Mousavi” and “Karroubi” all over Iran as Rowhani was announced as the winner. Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karrobi were the reformist candidates in 2009. There was not a repeat of the last election’s violence, in which hundreds of protesters were injured and arrested by state-backed militia and police, who also killed up to a hundred people. Mousavi and Karrobi were also put under house arrest after the rumours of further unrest during the Arab Spring in 2011.

Opinion is divided over whether Rowhani will be able to improve Iran’s precarious economy and re-establish relations with the United States and the European Union.

Author of the League for the Defence of Human Rights in Iran (FIDH) report, “Rising poverty: declining labour rights”, Bijan Baharan, said the change in leadership will not make much of a difference for the many political prisoners and people devastated by the hyperinflation and high levels of unemployment, brought on by the sanctions.

“None of the candidates has a vision to bring improvement…the Iranian political structure is totally corrupt and blocked system that does not accommodate any possibility of change from the top. Only a movement from below can bring any change,” he told New Matilda via email.

Mariam, a 24 year-old student from Rasht in lush northern Iran, says many of her friends did not vote because “it is not a free election”.

“All the candidates [have]the same ideas, especially about loyalty to Khamenei. The only neo-liberalist candidate is [Rowhani], who used to be republican [Conservative]”, she said.

Among Rowhani’s chief policies is a normalisation of relations with the West. He has previously worked closely with European powers in his role chief nuclear negotiator from 2003-2005. After leaving that position, however, he made clear his goals for the talks.

“In fact, by creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work on Isfahan (a new underground centrifuge unknown to the UN),” he said in a speech.

Relations cooled after Ahmadinejad abandoned the suspension on enrichment agreed upon by Rowhani and the Europeans. Continual refusal to deal with any western powers or the UN by Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Khamenei led to harsh sanctions being imposed on Iran, imposing hefty fines on any organisation which bought Iranian oil or goods, or transferred money in or out of the country.

The seriousness of these blocks was shown the US$1.9 billion fine given to HSBC in part for breaching the ban on unapproved money transfers with Iranian banks.

The consequences of the sanctions are detailed in FIDH’s report, released last week.

“Unemployment has also been rising and unofficial estimates of independent experts range above 30 per cent up to 35-40 per cent but official cooked up figures are about 12 per cent,” said its author Baharan.

“Prices and inflation have been rising in the past 8 years and in particular spiralling since 2012. Purchasing power has been falling.”

The report also cites government monopolies on business as having been particularly damaging:

“There are many reasons for (the failing economy), most of which can be traced back to monopolisation of political and economic power within the State apparatus and in particular the tendency to militarise politics and the economy, cronyism, high level corruption that involves assigning the most lucrative projects to institutions connected or affiliated to the State, influential persons with good connections to the people in the hierarchy.”

Despite the challenges President-elect Rowhani faces, he has a young, well-educated population (a third of young people are enrolled in university), huge oil resources and a receptive global audience. It is how he works with the Supreme Council which will determine his ability to make a difference domestically and internationally.

President Ahmadinejad fell out of favour with the Ayatollah in his last two years in power, which have been marked by spats with both the Iranian parliament (which booed Ahmadinejad and ejected him from the chamber) and Ayatollah Khamenei.

His (marginal) efforts to improve dialogue with the US earlier this year were overruled by Khamenei, who said “negotiations will not solve the problems” after Ahmadinejad indicated willingness to speak with the US if they “pulled the gun away”, alluding to the sanctions.

It is not certain which tact Rowhani will take: he was elected on a platform of change, promising to pull back the powers of the “morality police” who make sure women are veiled, and move government contracts away from Revolutionary Guard-owned businesses, something Ahmadinejad failed to do. His background nonetheless indicates a working relationship with the inflexible ruling clerics and a respect for Khamenei, so he will have to decide whether his allegiance is with the millions who voted for him, or the men who allowed him to run.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.