Iran has a new president, but it might not be as important as expected. Hassan Rouhani won the election on a moderate campaign, promising greater freedoms for the press and a retreat from the socio-poliitcal crackdown of the last four years. He had the sudden support of reformist figures in the political system. But when he replaces Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Rouhani will find the system will be against him.
The sad fact is that the presidency isn’t the ultimate power in Iran. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, is the supreme leader. Khamenei’s spent the last eight years in an increasingly confrontational struggle with Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad did more to strengthen the office of the presidency than any of his predecessors, and build a large support base through a populist, nationalist-driven ideology. That put him in direct conflict with the religious power of the Ayatollah. In the four years since Khamenei threw his weight behind a rigged election to keep the president in power, Iran saw Khamenei arrest Ahmadinejad’s allies and even question the need for Iran to keep the presidential system of governance.
Rouhani also has to deal with an economy wrecked by sanctions. Currency value declined enormously in the last four years, and the Western powers continue to plot new rounds of sanctions against Iran. Rouhani campaigned saying that a period of stability is needed to settle the in-flux national economic policy, but he might not get that window of opportunity.
On a similar vein, there isn’t much that Rouhani can do to resolve the Iranian nuclear debate. The chief negotiator with the P5+1 powers is Saeed Jalili, the Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council and Rouhani’s rival in the presidential election. He remains the conduit through which Iran talks to the West about its nuclear program, and he is more loyal to the Supreme Leader than Rouhani. In fact, Jalili’s policy on the issue is in contrast from Rouhani’s more diplomatic approach when he handled negotiations. Rouhani promised eased tensions with the West in his campaign, but he ultimately has no real voice when negotiations happen; that’s the domain of Khamenei and his ultra loyalists. Similarly, ongoing issues such as Syria and continued belligerence from Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in Israel are only going to make it harder for Rouhani to bridge the gap with Western powers.
President-elect Rouhani might be what Iran needs. He ran on a moderate campaign, he’s not a devotee to the hardline, Ayatollah-centric policy that’s trying to exert control, and he seems keenly aware that the Iranian people want a leader who will actually listen to them. But in the face of Khamenei’s attempt to regain control of the country, and outside pressures, there might not be much Iran’s new president can do to solve the country’s problems.