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Iran Election of Conservative-Aligned Revolutionary Cleric Triggers Debate Over Regime Moderation

The election this weekend of Iranian president-elect Hassan Rouhani has triggered debate in the foreign policy community. Some see his ascension as a “game-changer” [1] that will open the door to engagement by the West.

Others have expressing skepticism that the selection of a revolutionary cleric aligned with Iran’s conservative camp – especially one who has called for the execution [2] of pro-democracy student protesters – constituted a harbinger of regime moderation:

As Mr. Rohani said at a pro-regime rally in July 1999: “At dusk yesterday we received a decisive revolutionary order to crush mercilessly and monumentally any move of these opportunist elements wherever it may occur. From today our people shall witness how in the arena our law enforcement force . . . shall deal with these opportunists and riotous elements, if they simply dare to show their faces.”

The “opportunists and riotous elements” Mr. Rohani referred to were university students staging pro-democracy protests. His words at the time were widely viewed as a declaration of war, authorizing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the basij militia to unleash hell on Tehran’s campuses.

Analysts noted that the 64-year-old Rouhani’s election was functionally engineered [3] by the regime, which hand-picked him and seven other candidates to run from among some 680 applicants. The more publicly hard-line candidates were left to split votes among themselves while Rouhani became the least unpalatable option for the pro-democracy factions he had once called to be executed.

The New York Times described [4] Rouhani as “no renegade reformist” but as an operative who has spent his political life “at the center of Iran’s conservative establishment.” The influential security newsletter NightWatch was even more blunt:

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei declared Rouhani’s election a great day for Iranian theocracy. Rouhani is a cleric whose candidacy Khamenei and the Guardian Council approved. He is a past confidante of the Supreme Leader and a former top nuclear negotiator. He is not a so-called reformer, but he will allow the West to think of him as such to get sanctions eased.

By reputation he prefers engagement with the West. While he might be easier to engage in talks, the policies will not change, only the style of a new president. As for reform, the public comments by Khamenei indicate the clerisy will continue, but stylistic changes might serve as a pressure release, if Rouhani can get sanctions eased.

It is unclear how much if at all Rouhani will be able to affect Iran’s intransigence in nuclear talks. The country’s posture in talks is dictated directly by Khamenei. The Supreme Leader banned presidential candidates [5] in advance from making concessions to the west, and in February vetoed direct talks [6] between Iran and the United States.

It is even more unclear whether talks conducted by Rouhani would be done in good faith. He has boasted [7] that in the past, he used talks to buy time in order to expand Iran’s nuclear infrastructure:

Though Rowhani’s plans for the program remain largely a mystery, a fascinating speech he delivered sometime between October and November 2004 offers some insight as to his thinking about the program and how his country deals with the West.

For those seeking a diplomatic resolution to the stand-off, the speech offers both good and bad news. On the one hand, Rowhani argues that Iran should engage more directly with the West through diplomatic channels. On the other hand, he observes that Iran’s strategy of slow-playing the West through negotiations while covertly developing its nuclear program has largely served the country well.

[Photo: AlJazeeraEnglish / Youtube [8]]