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Who Is Behind Rouhani's Would-Be Revolution?

Rouhani is back in Iran
Rouhani is back in Iran
Shirin Khodaparast

A week, it turns out, can be a long time in Iranian politics too.

Cautious optimism about new reformist President Hassan Rouhani turned to genuine hope for a whole new era in Iran’s global diplomacy after a series of interventions last week in and around the UN General Assembly that culminated with Friday’s historic telephone call between Rouhani and U.S. President Barack Obama.

Since Rouhani’s election in August, the question inside and outside Iran has been how far might the moderate Shia cleric and regime insider go in reversing the hard-line isolation agenda of his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The embattled reformists — the broadly liberal elements whose democratizing agenda was blocked in the late 1990s — had been sidelined, and particularly persecuted after the protests that challenged the 2009 elections when Ahmadinejad won his second term. But since Rouhani’s election, surprises started trickling in offering signs that real change might be at hand: from reappointments of reformist officials who served under President Mohammad Khatami in the 1990s to the release of political prisoners to a rather muted response by the conservative camp to the brewing changes.

Now with the landmark call with Obama, the first direct contact between leaders of the two countries since 1979’s Iranian Revolution, the question of who really has the power in Iran becomes ever more crucial. Is the Islamic Republic about to live another of its political realignments as groups begin to jostle into position for or against possible policy changes?

Rouhani appears to have gotten further in just a few short weeks than preceding reformist leaders in normalizing ties with the United States. Still, it is clearly anything but a one-man show. As a conservative parliamentarian said in recent days, the new president would engage in no conversations with the United States without Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei"s permission.

Indeed, what differentiates Rouhani from Khatami appears to be his proximity to Khamenei. If his election was a “reformist triumph,” it would only be able to bear such fruits with the approval of the Supreme Leader and his circle. It is a much different picture than in 2009 when the two reformist candidates were seen as harbingers of turmoil.

Rouhani instead is known for having few enemies and a “technocratic” reputation, a potential problem-solver for a state mired in economic crisis, where the isolationist approach to world affairs was increasingly seen as partially responsible for the troubles at home.

What’s clear from the past week is that the green light has been given to a whole new set of policies, even though their effects come with built-in uncertainty. The Iranian regime, we are reminded, is not entirely averse to changes, even if it remains clearly hostile to political movements that refuse to place clerical leadership above popular sovereignty.

It is an unresolved and central question: Should post-revolutionary Iran be a clerical or oligarchic regime, or really and truly an Islamic Republic? An incipient loosening of political discourse may reopen that debate. Presumably those ordering dissidents released from prison are aware that changes involve risk, and forward-looking politics often brings instability with it.

During his long career within Iran’s power elite, Rouhani has generally eschewed an approach that shakes the status quo, and though clearly identified as a reformist, he has never been associated with radical movements. If the analogy were made with a private company, he would be considered a senior executive known for both his loyalty and competence, aided by excellent ties to the majority shareholders. Other reformists sidelined from power in recent years were missing that final element, having fallen from the Supreme Leader’s graces. Khatami’s radical allies sought to “bypass” him, in their own words, sinking the ship of moderate reforms and landing either in court or jail.

Former President Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani has gone from being an accumulator of state powers in the 1980s and 1990s to a relative state of political impotence. His influence began to shrink in 2005 when he opposed Ahmadinejad, the regime's chosen candidate, before he too fell out of favor.

Ironically, perhaps, it was conservatives who most undermined Ahmadinejad and his allies in the latter part of his presidency; they knew or they sensed that he was on his own, no longer with the backing of the Supreme Leader. Indeed, Ayatollah Khamenei has himself shifted several times toward or away from one or another group in past decades, discreetly though it may have been, as his position is ostensibly above the political fray.

One wonders, is the Supreme Leader leaning now toward a political “center,” and will the bulk of the conservatives follow? If political liberalization at home were to follow foreign-policy changes, how far could the reformists go? Is the once-great pragmatist kingmaker Rafsanjani really at the end of his political career? If big changes are truly afoot, one will have to continue closely following the fortunes of Iran’s myriad political players. This past week, at least, Rouhani, with his strikingly open approach to international relations, staked out a bold new position that could reverberate around the world.

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