Iran’s presidency has been a strange institution ever since it was established a year into Iran’s Islamic Revolution. While Iran’s early presidents were meant to represent the Islamic Republic to the world, they could scarcely compete with the powerful and imposing personality of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who claimed to represent God on earth. Since Khomeini’s death in 1989, Iranian presidents have established themselves as the international face of an ostensibly democratic Iran, but have remained subordinate to the absolute power and socially conservative vision of Khomeini’s successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And while all of Iran’s presidents have challenged their supreme leader’s powers in some way, most have paid a high political price. Now, ahead of Iran's elections on May 19, IranWire looks back at Iran's past seven presidencies.
When Iranians went to the polls in Iran’s presidential election on Friday, May 19, President Hassan Rouhani hoped for a substantial first-round victory, as he achieved back in 2013. And, by early afternoon on May 20, it was confirmed: Rouhani won a massive victory, with 23 million Iranians voting for his reelection.
But much has changed since 2013. Once regarded as the man who could save Iran from international isolation, sanctions, and the threat of war based on Iran’s standoff with the West over its nuclear program, Rouhani now faces criticism for overselling the economic benefits of Iran’s 2015 nuclear settlement. In a series of three televised debates that began in April, his chief rival, Ebrahim Raeesi — a hardline conservative former prosecutor — posed as a patron of Iran’s working poor and portrayed Rouhani as an out-of-touch elite mismanaging the economy.
Rouhani's win is a clear endorsement of his engagement with the West and his ability to rebuild the economy, even if this recovery has been slower and less dramatic than many have hoped. In 2013, conditions for Rouhani’s repairman politics were more favorable. When he became president in August of that year, the Islamic Republic was in rough shape. The 2009 “Green Movement” protests against the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, along with the ensuing crackdown by security forces and the house arrest of Ahmadinejad’s main rivals, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, had cast doubt on the legitimacy of Iran’s system of Islamic government. During the 2013 election campaign, Rouhani had presented himself as the man who could put the country back on course. He was widely embraced as such, even by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But in 2017, Khamenei supported Ebrahim Raeesi, who also had the support of Iran's conservatives and the Revolutionary Guards.
A long-time member of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Rouhani has been seen as a loyal servant of Iran’s Islamic government. In the early days of the Islamic Republic, he had helped Iran’s Islamists to gain control of the country’s partly American-trained armed forces. In 1999, he had led an infamous crackdown against student protests over Iran’s lack of press freedom. As a nuclear negotiator from 2003-2005, he was seen as an experienced diplomat able to end Iran’s economic isolation. As a centrist associated with former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, he offered some limited hope to reformists seeking greater social freedoms and the release of the imprisoned Green Movement leaders, which he promised to pursue.
Follow the President
Just a month after Rouhani entered office, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei handed him a powerful mandate to resolve the nuclear standoff. “I am not against proper political moves in diplomacy,” Khamenei said, in what would become a famous speech.
I believe in what was named many years ago as ‘heroic flexibility’… A wrestler sometimes shows flexibility for technical reasons. But he should not forget who his opponent and enemy is.
This was a signal to officials across the Islamic Republic’s political spectrum that, while the United States was to remain the enemy of the revolutionary state, Rouhani had a job to do and should be allowed to do it.
As it turned out, high-ranking officials close to the supreme leader—notably Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization—had already laid some of the groundwork during the Ahmadinejad period. “When Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif took over in 2013, their plan was to develop relations with the Europeans in order to drive a wedge between the European Union and the US to diminish the effect of sanctions on Iran,” says Ali Vaez, a senior analyst at the Crisis Group. “They were shocked to learn that there had already been back channel discussions with the Americans through Oman and that the supreme leader would actually tolerate direct negotiations with the US.
By November 24th, Rouhani and Zarif had secured an interim nuclear agreement in Geneva with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council — the US, Britain, France, Russia and China — along with Germany. The terms of Iran’s agreement with the group, which was known as the P5+1, froze development of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for limited sanctions relief, giving Rouhani and Zarif room to maneuver. “Regardless of who had become president that year, this would have been the system's strategy,” Vaez says. “Khamenei had made a decision to find an exit plan from the nuclear crisis. Rouhani and Zarif had the experience, the knowledge, and the skills to deliver.”
The Backseat Negotiator
Although Khamenei had made Rouhani the public face of negotiations, he set Rouhani and Zarif a series of “red lines” based on discussions with Iran’s Supreme National Security Council. Two main requirements were that the physical infrastructure of Iran’s nuclear facilities should remain in place and that no facility should be shut down. “One example was, you can’t shut down Fordow,” Vaez says, referring to a secret underground uranium enrichment plant that was publicly identified by US President Barack Obama in 2009. “Another was that the heavy water reactor in Arak would have to remain a heavy water reactor, even though it would produce less plutonium. They wanted to do this because of the heavy price the country had paid for this infrastructure, to show that it wasn’t all for nothing.”
There were also tactical disagreements between Khamenei and the negotiating team. One example, Vaez says, was when negotiators were seeking a way to reduce Iran’s number of operating uranium enrichment centrifuges — around 9000 — by half. One idea was that Iran could alternate between sets of 4500 centrifuges, with each set operating for several months. But Khamenei, informed by Salahi that this would damage the centrifuges, intervened. Khamenei then sent Salehi to join the negotiators and supervise technical matters. “The fact that the supreme leader was seen as the bad cop in this dynamic had some utility,” Vaez says. “The negotiators could always tell the Americans that the things they were asking for were unacceptable to the supreme leader.”
No Good Deal Goes Unpunished
On July 14, 2015, Iran and the P5+1 reached an agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which rolled back Iran’s nuclear program and instituted anti-proliferation safeguards in exchange for relief from a range of US, EU, and United Nations Security Council sanctions. While the deal was widely celebrated based on expectations that it would lead to greater economic prosperity, Rouhani faced constant criticism from more radical and security-minded MPs and officials who accused him of compromising Iran’s nuclear rights. Khamenei, in acknowledgment of dissent from much of his own political base, adopted a more equivocal tone.
“By the time the nuclear deal was sealed, Khamenei put the brakes on Rouhani,” says Alex Vatanka of the Middle East Institute. “Khamenei does not let anyone become the hero of the nation on any issue. He has done this with other presidents. He doesn’t let anyone get too big, whether they come from the reformist side like Mohammad Khatami or from the far right populist side like Ahmadinejad.” And while Khamenei’s approach to Iran’s presidents is partly about limiting rivalry, it is also about avoiding the long-term risk associated with any policy. “This is fully consistent with Khamenei's approach to issues that might be double-edged,” Vatanka says. “It’s ‘heroic flexibility’ vs. ‘I don’t trust the Americans.’ Khamenei doesn't want to own a failed policy.”
The main point for Khamenei, it seems, was that Iranians shouldn’t see the nuclear negotiations as a pathway to a thaw in US-Iran relations, or to social change at home. “Overall, he saw the deal as a victory,” Vaez says. “He has said publicly that people who once would not tolerate 20 centrifuges in Iran have been forced to tolerate thousands of centrifuges. But he wanted this to be a ‘seal’ rather than a ‘foundation” for any additional improvements in Iran's relations with the US.” Reacting to a series of 2016 speeches in which Rouhani had called for a “JCPOA 2” to build political consensus and economic prosperity inside Iran, Khamenei slapped him down, saying that those who talk about an additional JCPOA were getting their cues from the enemy. “This was incredible pushback,” Vaez says, “and since then, Rouhani has not talked about it again.”
Within Iran, the main fault line in Rouhani’s relationship with Khamenei has been his criticism of the role of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps — a bloated political and national security organization established after Iran’s 1979 revolution — in Iran’s economy. Khamenei has cultivated the support of the Guards for decades, and that support helped him in his early days as supreme leader, when he sought pre-eminence over Iran’s most powerful president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. But from Rouhani’s perspective, the Guards’ outsized involvement in national infrastructure and development projects is an obstacle to foreign investment, not least because the Guards remain the target of international anti-terrorism sanctions.
Khamenei wants Rouhani to know his place. “You can think of the president as the manager-in-chief,” says Sanam Vakil of the London think tank Chatham House. “The president has relative autonomy in managing the morale of the country, but most big decisions, such as dividing up resources, are made in consensus with Khamenei. Rouhani is trying to carve out a sphere of influence for his vision of Iran, and it’s largely about dividing up spheres of investment.” While the Guards are also keen to have foreign investment, she says, much of the debate centers on what type of investment and from where. The implication is that, from the Guards’ perspective, Rouhani is too keen on building relations with the West, where as the Guards favor an anti-western “resistance economy.”
Ahead of Iran’s 2017 presidential election, Rouhani turned the Guards’ politics into an election issue. Speaking in a televised debate in May, Rouhani accused the Guards of trying to sabotage the JCPOA by carrying out provocative missile tests with missiles emblazoned with anti-Israeli slogans.
“Today, Rouhani is openly attacking the Revolutionary Guards generals,” Vatanka says. “He is speaking in a way that even President Mohammad Khatami, who called himself a reformist, didn’t dare to.” Rouhani has also challenged Iran’s wider security establishment, notably by pointing out on television that his rival Raeesi — a figure in Iran’s powerful judiciary — has the power to arrest him, but telling him, “Please don’t abuse religion for power.”
Even so, Vatanka says, Rouhani had not made clear which part of the electorate he was trying to appeal to. “The Rafsanjani network wants him to stand up to the Revolutionary Guards,” he says, referring to the supporters of the late president who died this January, “but his base wants him to be more of a reformist.”
Nevertheless, on May 14, former president Khatami did his best to mobilize reformist support by endorsing Rouhani, remarking,
We started on a path with Mr. Rouhani and we are at the halfway point… Repeat your vote for the dear Mr. Rouhani to strengthen hope and a better future.
Kings and Successions
Since Khamenei became supreme leader in 1989, every Iranian president has served two terms, although every president’s second term has been rather stagnant. Where they have sought to take more risks, Khamenei has constrained their ambitions. While Rouhani has so far made only token gestures in favor of Iran’s reformists — notably by criticizing the “morality” police that can punish women for their fashion choices, and by easing some areas of media censorship — he has seemingly abandoned his most radical 2013 campaign promise, which was to seek the release of 2009 reformist presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi from house arrest.
“Rouhani made that promise,” Vatanka says, “but here is the nasty truth: Rouhani did nothing, from what we can tell, to push Khamenei on the issue. And you don’t get dissidents released from house arrest by acting from behind the scenes. It is only when you speak the truth to the Iranian people that you might get Khamenei to reconsider.” But if Iran’s reformists are still concerned about the men — Karroubi offered Rouhani his endorsement on May 15 — they probably shouldn’t expect too much from a second Rouhani term. “This is an issue that will remain unresolved for as long as possible,” Vakil says. “It is not in the regime’s interest to resolve it. This is one ‘red line’ where it would be playing with popular emotions and that could be disastrous for the regime.”
A second Rouhani term, Vakil says, would probably look much like Mohammad Khatami’s second term, which brought few significant changes and much heartache. “It would be only about the economy,” she says. “He would be a castrated president with very little room to move. His job would be to create employment without bringing out the conservative elites’ fears of a ‘soft coup.’” Khamenei’s "red lines," she says, are very clear: defending the revolution and defending Iran’s political system from internal change.
Khamenei, who is now 77, also has his succession to consider. Rouhani, as an Islamic cleric, could be in the running. “Rouhani is ambitious enough that if the succession occurs under his tenure, he could be on the list of candidates for supreme leader,” Vaez says. “Khamenei does not trust Rouhani and does not want him to be in a powerful position if the succession happens.” But Khamenei also has an erratic president in the White House to think of. “At the same time, Khamenei sees that dark clouds are gathering, and the Trump administration is seeking to roll back Iran’s influence in the region. He understands that the best strategy for Iran is to shift blame for undermining the nuclear deal to the US. For that strategy, he needs Rouhani and his team of smiling diplomats.”
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