The labeling of members of the ruling political elite in Iran as «conservatives» or «reformers» has become commonplace, which seriously hinders understanding of the changes taking place in the leadership of the Islamic Republic after the beginning of Hassan Rouhani's presidency. Attempts to squeeze this multifaceted political figure into the framework of standard conceptions of Iranian «reformers» are at the least dubious and only serve to multiply the contradictions in assessments of the reasons for his election victory…
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Probably those who were most looking forward to Ahmadinejad leaving were the Iranian clergy, among whom the former president, who was supported by the military elite in Iran, including the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, was never fully accepted.
Rouhani's victory returned control of executive power in the country to the hands of the Shiite clerics. And since there was a demand among certain parts of the Iranian electorate for a «liberal politician» or a «reformer», Rouhani was also immediately made a «reformer». Voters were offered not a candidate, but an image of a desirable president. This political image turned out to be fairly attractive to Iranians and, having received 50.7% of the votes, Rouhani became the next president of the IRI to represent the country's higher clergy, who almost unanimously acknowledged his victory. Naturally the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei, was aware of the plans for Rouhani's candidacy.
As early as the second half of the 1960s Rouhani had begun to participate in revolutionary activities against the shah. In 1977 he left Iran due to persecution from the authorities and joined Imam Khomeini. From 1980 to 2000 he was a member of parliament, where from 1992 to 2000 he was the vice chairman. In the years of the Iran-Iraq war Rouhani was part of the Supreme Defense Council, commanded the Iran Air Defense Force and was the deputy commander of the armed forces. In 1989 he was appointed secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and held this post until Ahmadinejad became president. Starting in 2005 Rouhani was the representative of the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei, in the Supreme National Security Council; the council's secretary Jalili played the role of chief nuclear negotiator. For over twenty years, starting in 1991, Rouhani was a member of the Expediency Council and headed the Center for Strategic Research.
Such a political career hardly justifies calling the new Iranian president a liberal. The doctorate he received at Glasgow Caledonian University in the 1990s and the heightened expectations of the «reformist» members of his new government change little in this respect. The Iranian majlis is usually considered conservative, but 15 out of the 18 ministers presented by President Rouhani for approval received a vote of confidence from the parliament. That means that no confrontations between the new cabinet of ministers and the parliament are expected in the near future; common pragmatism prevails. As Rouhani himself says, the time for slogans has passed; in the situation in which Iran now finds itself, the time has come to act, which he is urging his new ministers to do.
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The core of the new government of Iran is made up of career officials with an average age of 57. Politicians who served in the governments of Presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami are substantially represented in the new cabinet, but no obvious representatives of the reformist wing of the Iranian elite, as were seen in 2009, made it into the government. More precisely, Rouhani did not even nominate any for confirmation by the parliament.
To give one example, the absolute leader (96.47% of the votes of parliament members) in the parliamentary voting to confirm the new Iranian cabinet was Ali Tayebnia, the secretary of the economic commission under Presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami, who took the post of minister of economy and finance. Other members of the governments of that time who became part of the new cabinet of ministers include the ministers of petroleum; defense and armed forces logistics; agriculture; cooperatives, labor and social welfare; industries and business; and transportation and housing. This has caused some to say that in the near future the economy of Iran (but only the economy, not the country as a whole) will be governed by three presidents. The last word in President Rouhani's selection of candidates for key political posts in the cabinet – the ministers of foreign affairs, intelligence, justice, interior, and culture and Islamic guidance – went to Ayatollah Khamenei.
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Rouhani indicates that the main goals of the new government will be to rehabilitate the economy, which is experiencing growing pressure from sanctions; to normalize relations with the West; and to bring Iran out of international isolation. It will be necessary to rein in American power, which has become an obstacle to Iran's economic progress. «That does not mean», emphasizes Rouhani, «abandoning our principles, but a change of methods is needed.» The task is a difficult one; it is one thing to abandon his predecessor Ahmadinejad's bellicose rhetoric toward the U.S. and Israel, and quite another to normalize relations with the West without making radical changes in the state's foreign policy. To believe in Washington's peaceable intentions toward Tehran would be absurd.
It is for this complex task that the new Iranian minister of foreign affairs, whose career is not typical for an Iranian politician, was selected. 53-year-old Mohammad Javad Zarif is a graduate of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver (USA). He received a PhD at San Francisco State University. In 1992-2002 he held the post of deputy minister of foreign affairs, and then he was the head of the Iranian delegation to the UN for five years. Iranian experts note his closeness to President Khatami, as well as Zarif's long experience in conducting informal negotiations with Washington. The new head of the foreign policy department, as envisioned by the Iranian leadership, should become the face of Tehran's new diplomacy, first and foremost in contacts with the United States and the European Union. Let us also note that Iran's foreign policy, in accordance with the legislation of the IRI, is determined by the country's supreme leader, Grand Ayatollah Khamenei, who approved Zarif's appointment.
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Rouhani speaks openly of Iran's difficult socio-economic situation, which has resulted from pressure on the Iranian economy from sanctions imposed by the West. The new president emphasizes that «the West is depriving Iranians of the means to meet elementary needs». In 2012 Iran entered a recession for the first time in 20 years, and in the first quarter of 2013 only 45% of the budget of the Islamic Republic was implemented. The country's new leadership intends to develop and implement a six-month plan to restore stability to the economy, while realizing that planning while under sanctions is becoming more and more difficult.
According to the estimate of the U.S. Department of Energy, sanctions against Iran have led to a decrease in the country's oil exports to the lowest level since 1986. In 2012 exports of Iranian oil to other countries decreased to 1.5 million barrels a day (in 2011 that figure was 2.5 million barrels). Iran's revenue from oil exports decreased over 2012 from 95 billion dollars to 69 billion dollars. Iran's losses are connected not only with the cessation of oil exports to Europe. There has also been a reduction in exports to Asian countries upon which Washington has, to a greater or lesser extent, forced its anti-Iranian course. For example, over the 2012-2013 fiscal year ending March 31, India reduced the volume of its imports of oil from Iran by 26.5%.
In the U.S. a new law has been passed according to which the main «punitive measure» applied to Iran is the successive cutting back of oil exports by one million barrels a day over the course of a year, which in the end, as envisioned by the Americans, should lead to the cessation of Iranian oil exports to world markets in 2015. Iran has nothing with which to compensate for the losses from oil exports. As shown in statistical data from the customs administration, over the first four months of this year the volume of exports of Iranian petrochemical products dropped by 12.5%, while that of gas condensate dropped by 15%. The remainder of exports (besides oil and gas) dropped by 5% compared with the same period for last year. The situation with imports, for which the goods nomenclature was seriously cut back by the Iranian government last year, is no better: it has decreased by almost one third.
During the Ahmadinejad administration Iran chose the wise strategy of developing production of petroleum refinery products with high added value in order to export petrochemical products rather than raw materials. Currently in Iran 70 petrochemical industry facilities are under construction; the degree of completion varies from 5% to 95%. In order to complete all the projects, Tehran needs 30-35 billion dollars. Finding that much money, considering that Iran is under comprehensive sanctions, will be exceedingly complicated.
In any case, Rouhani cannot but sense that he has too little time to justify the confidence of the country's population. The first things that the president will be taking care of in these conditions are socio-economic problems and, as a prerequisite to solving them, the relaxation of sanctions. One must also consider the fact that with the beginning of Rouhani's presidency, new opportunities in the Islamic Republic's relations with the West have appeared which may include, in particular, the beginning of direct bilateral negotiations between Tehran and Washington. The leading countries of the European Union are anxiously looking forward to this, as they are losing billions of euros by leaving the Iranian market.