Rouhani at Two Years: An Assessment on the Cusp of a Nuclear Deal
Attention during President Rouhani's first two years in office has understandably been focused on Iran’s nuclear negotiations with the P5+1. Yet these two years have also witnessed important developments—and conflicts—in the sphere of politics, the economy, human rights, and social policy. Our panel examined this broad spectrum of issues.
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Three experts on Iran discussed the presidency of Hassan Rouhani regarding domestic events in the spheres of politics, the economy, human rights, and social policy.
On June 25, 2015, the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center and the United States Institute of Peace hosted an event “Rouhani at Two Years: An Assessment on the Cusp of a Nuclear Deal,” with Robin Wright, USIP-Wilson Center Distinguished Scholar; Suzanne Maloney, Interim Deputy Director and Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution; and Karim Sadjadpour, Senior Associate, Middle East Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program, Woodrow Wilson Center, moderated the event and provided opening remarks.
During opening remarks, Esfandiari mentioned that the first Middle East Program event held 17 years ago was about Iran, and this event, her last as the Director of the Middle East Program, is also about Iran. Wright, Maloney, and Sadjadpour thanked her for her years of service and scholarship.
In 10 broad headlines, Wright said that Iran has stabilized somewhat during Rouhani’s first two years in office, after 16 years of wild political gyrations, an uprising, and eight particularly troubled years under former President Ahmadinejad. Rouhani’s policies have taken on a more realistic tone, exemplified in efforts to curtail corruption, overspending and subsidies. The equilibrium is fragile and probably temporary, however. The Supreme Leader helped contain the opposition in the name of national unity behind a possible nuclear deal. But Iran’s deep political rivalries will reemerge in the fall as campaigns heat up for elections—for both parliament and the Assembly of Experts—due in February. Parliament has been controlled by hardliners for a decade, and centrists and reformists believe they can reclaim more political space. They are already making plans to flood the field with candidates. The elections are particularly pivotal because Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei is aged and ailing. There is a widespread public assumption that the next Assembly of Experts will select his successor, who will define the next era in Iran’s revolution. But two generations after the shah’s ouster, Iranians are less interested in heady debates about the ideal Islamic state and far more concerned with the practical challenges of daily life, from chronic environmental problems to the economy.
Maloney expanded on the subject of the economy, describing Rouhani’s restraints in balancing the domestic political environment, international expectations, and the needs of the Iranian population. She explained that another major issue is reconciling the economic policies with the ideology of the Islamic Revolution. Rouhani’s success in the economic sphere has been aided by two trends: the diminishing political polarization about the economy and the lessening of social implications related to economic reforms. Maloney mentioned that the Rouhani government has made a concerted effort to break from the legacy of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but the long-term economic issues point to failures within the overall political-economic system.
Sadjadpour emphasized four main points on Rouhani and his government. Firstly, Rouhani has gambled his presidency on the achievement of a nuclear deal. Secondly, he noted that despite the rhetoric on the return of the moderates and civil society, Rouhani will be beholden to the hardliners and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to make the implementation of a nuclear deal work. Thirdly, in order for the Supreme Leader to maintain his position of power without accountability, he needs a president with accountability but no power. Sadjadpour suspects Khamenei will move to weaken Rouhani in the coming years. Fourthly, Rouhani’s move to pragmatism from the ideology of Ahmadinejad will face pushback from hardliners, who are dedicated to keeping the rhetoric of the revolution and regime alive.
During the question and answer portion of the event, Esfandiari asked about Rouhani’s track record on human rights and the role of the judiciary. Wright articulated that the judiciary has been an obstacle for anyone trying to make changes in Iran, and cited numerous former leaders and prominent families associated with the 1979 Revolution that have been charged with crimes by the hardline judicial system. Sadjadpour answered a question from the audience on the regime’s regional policy by emphasizing the recurring disconnect between national interests and the ideology of the regime. He said that the monopoly of coercion still rests with Iran’s hardliners who will support policies to keep Syria and Iraq united.
By: Jill Ricotta, Middle East Program
Author and columnist for The New Yorker
Middle East Program
The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Read more