Hassan Rowhani’s victory in the June 14 Iranian presidential election can be essentially interpreted as the Iranian answer to the Arab Spring: just as the Islamists are winning in the Middle East, an Islamic liberal triumphed in Iran. Rowhani’s liberalism, of course, conforms to Iran’s traditional state policies and official ideology. He is a liberal in the most conservative sense of the word. But, understood comparatively, his views are more liberal than those of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as well as those of his main election opponents—Saeed Jalili, whose bid was supported by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, and Tehran’s mayor, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf.

Just like the onset of the Arab Spring, Rowhani’s victory was unexpected for the international community. He won slightly over 50 percent of the vote in the first round. Most analysts, including experts on Iran, had predicted that Jalili would become Iran’s next president and that a second round would be inevitable.

Alexey Malashenko
Malashenko is a former chair of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Religion, Society, and Security Program.
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Rowhani’s victory indicates that the radical conservative agenda does not enjoy widespread support in Iran at this time. No conservative came close to receiving as many votes as the comparatively liberal Rowhani, even with the support of Khamenei and the mighty Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, who wield substantial administrative power. A second round would have probably taken place had Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards risked using this power to the fullest possible extent. However, the regime decided not to take any chances, remembering the 2009 presidential election in which Iranians took to the streets to contest the results. The ensuing widespread clashes threatened the very existence of the regime.

In essence, the most recent election can be seen as an example of “illiberal democracy,” although many experts reject such a construct altogether. (Incidentally, there were no international observers at the elections.)

Going forward, the economy is likely to be a key area of focus. Rowhani’s victory comes at a time when Iran is in dire economic straits. Last year, the prices of consumer goods increased by 31 percent (these are the official numbers; some other reports cite a 50 percent figure). The unemployment rate is 13 percent, while those working as little as two hours a week are not legally classified as unemployed. And as a result of the sanctions imposed on Iran, about $100 billion held in foreign bank accounts remain frozen.

As the new leader, Rowhani will be expected to take steps to stabilize and liberalize the economy. In the coming months, he will be faced with the tasks of curbing inflation, reducing unemployment, and stimulating small and midsize businesses. He will also need to ease the sanctions regime that stands in the way of overcoming the economic crisis.

While tackling economic problems, Rowhani cannot afford to reduce social expenditures—if he does, the country is in for increased social tensions that may culminate with the active expression of public discontent.

Observers also expect the new president to cautiously liberalize state policies through the measured expansion of individual freedoms and the protection of human rights. On the eve of the election, Rowhani spoke of the need to free political prisoners, whose exact numbers, incidentally, are still unknown. However, while one segment of society (perhaps one-half of the population) supports this type of reform, other influential segments reasonably fear that liberalization will eventually lead to the erosion and collapse of the country’s political system.

Of course, observers should not overestimate Rowhani’s liberal leanings. Iran already had a liberal leader—Mohammad Khatami—in the early 2000s, and his ambivalent and ambiguous internal politics in effect contributed to the election of his very radical successor, Ahmadinejad.

Since Islamism is sometimes compared to communism, it is possible compare Rowhani’s liberalism (if he will indeed act as a liberal) to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s “thaw” of the late 1950s and early 1960s. When Khrushchev was removed in 1964, he was succeeded by Leonid Brezhnev, who ushered in the so-called Brezhnev freeze of liberalization. Observers also should not expect to see an Iranian perestroika—it is unlikely that Rowhani will become the local Mikhail Gorbachev.

Rowhani’s challenges are not confined to the domestic sphere—he will have to make changes to Iran’s foreign policy as well. The country is currently politically isolated, and ordinary Iranians bear the economic and political costs of this isolation. The main issues on the new president’s agenda will be the Iranian nuclear program and Iran’s position in the Syrian conflict.

In the past, under Rowhani’s watch, Tehran demonstrated its willingness to cooperate with the international community on the issue of nuclear nonproliferation. As early as 2003–2005, Rowhani, then the head of Supreme National Security Council, took part in negotiations on the future of Iran’s nuclear program. At that time, he agreed to halt the Iranian uranium enrichment program and also consented to Iran’s compliance with the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It seemed that the long-awaited breakthrough on this issue was in the making, but Ahmadinejad’s ascension to power in 2005 reduced all Rowhani’s efforts to naught.

Now, Rowhani has a chance to pick up where he left off. The United States has already announced that it is ready for direct negotiations with Iran. The question is how far Rowhani is willing to go in this dialogue with Washington and what concessions Tehran is likely to make.

Iran is also expected to compromise on Syria. However, these concessions, if they are be made, may not be transparent and may be made behind the scenes. After all, Iran is part of a complex regional balancing act that does not allow it to directly reject Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or Hezbollah, its principal ally in the Middle East. Moreover, Iranian solidarity with Assad and Hezbollah has a religious component—the three share common Shia beliefs.

It is possible that Iran will limit the military aid it is currently providing to Syria and its allies. If that happens, Washington may respond by withdrawing its objections to Iranian participation in the upcoming Geneva II peace conference. The U.S. State Department and its Russian counterpart see this conference as an important step toward resolving the Syrian conflict.

For their part, Russian-Iranian relations are unlikely to change substantively. The Kremlin has an easier time dealing with anti-Western Iranian conservatives than with those who are trying to build bridges with the United States and Europe. Nevertheless, Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated Rowhani on his victory even before the final election results were published.

The president-elect said that his government would be “the government of wisdom and hope.” Rowhani certainly has a wealth of wisdom, and Iranian society has hardly ever had as much hope.