Iran’s New President Starts Off With A Familiar Strategy

—In his first few days in office, Iran’s new president is setting a determined course for an ambitious target— the middle ground. With his inaugural address, initial cabinet picks, and his first presidential press conference held today, Hassan Rouhani has signaled that he intends to make good on his campaign pledges to unlock Iran’s big problems, particularly the economic pressures on the population that are a result of sanctions and government mismanagement.

He appears determined to achieve something that has been sorely lacking in Iran in recent years, some sense of balance. Whether he can succeed remains uncertain, but it is worth noting that Rouhani’s initial steps are strikingly reminiscent of another Iranian president— not reformist Mohammad Khatami, whose 1997 election elicited a similar sense of surprise, but Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, under whose leadership Iran rebounded from a decade of war and upheaval.

Rouhani has long been associated with Rafsanjani, both in his political allegiances and in his ideological composition. And I’ve pressed the Rafsanjani analogy in the past. In my interpretation, the election of each man appeared designed to open the door to a new era for the Islamic Republic in which its leadership favored pragmatism and problem-solving over ideology. I am convinced that Rouhani has been empowered to end the nuclear crisis (although not the nuclear program) and revive Iran’s economy, just as Rafsanjani was tapped to end the war with Iraq and lead the reconstruction of the country.

As the Rouhani presidency begins, the comparisons bear repeating once again, especially since the protégé appears to be following the master’s game plan in structuring his administration, his priorities, and possibly also in his diplomatic ambitions as well. Rafsanjani achieved much during his eight years as president, and he remains one of the country’s most influential political figures. However, he notably failed to resolve Iran’s estrangement with the West, and his reconstruction program foundered as a result of internal politics and badly-conceived planning. Much has changed in Iran since the Rafsanjani era, but if Rouhani is to succeed in his agenda, he needs to avoid some of the same pitfalls that undid his predecessor and mentor. By the same token, the anticipation emanating from the international community surrounding Iran’s new president should be tempered by a recognition of how difficult this road will be, and how the world can help or hurt the prospects for change in Iran’s most problematic policies.

Let me first say a few words about what we’re seeing from Rouhani so far. He has not departed from his trademark approach, which is unsentimental and lucid. (This itself marks quite a welcome change from the Ahmadinejad era!) His initial cabinet picks provoked some cheers— especially for the soon-to-be-confirmed new foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who is widely known, respected and even liked— as well as some disappointment and early frustration.

The criticisms of Rouhani for some of his selections were inevitable, given the hopes raised by the election itself, and they also happen to be perfectly valid. There was nothing in Rouhani’s past experience that suggested he might be a closet liberalizer. His initial selections reinforce his consistency with the theocracy’s preferences on maintaining strong central control, as well as his reliance on a political circle associated with Rafsanjani. With reformists largely passed over particularly for the slots that are key to civil society (and women neglected entirely), it is still too soon to say whether Rouhani’s Iran will open the door to greater individual freedom and protection of basic rights. Among the less-than-inspiring picks, one stands out as something much worse— Mostafa Pour-mohammadi, the new justice minister, who has rightly earned international condemnation for his role in a litany of Iranian human rights abuses.

Still, to focus on the limitations of his cabinet is to misread the Rouhani election entirely, and to fail to appreciate the shrewd sense of priority that frames his emerging administration. He has said from the start that he intended to avoid identifying with a single one of Iran’s feuding political factions; indeed, his election was the product of an unprecedented cross-factional coordination. The new president recognizes that attempting to depoliticize his agenda represents its only chance of success. Anyone who is “seriously determined” to resolve the nuclear issue, as the new president said at his first press conference today, to anchor a broader effort to staunch inflation, unemployment, and dismal economic growth cannot afford debilitating battles over cabinet nominees, or the turmoil that the Khatami-era press freedoms unleashed. On this basis, the new president apparently acceded to demands from the Supreme Leader in his appointments to the ministries of culture and intelligence.

On the picks that matter most urgently to Iranians, and to the world, right now Rouhani’s pragmatism prevailed. In addition to Zarif, Rouhani is in the process of installing an economic team that, if confirmed, would represent the most serious and outwardly-oriented array of Iranian technocrats since Rafsanjani’s first cabinet in 1989. The names announced to date— among others, Eshaq Jahangiri, Bijan Namdar Zanganeh, Mohammad Nahavandian, Mahmoud Vaezi, Mohammad Reza Nematzadeh, Ali Tayyebnia— will provide a sorely-needed confidence boost to the Iranian private sector and signal to Iran’s erstwhile international partners that Tehran is reopening for business.

In this regard, Rouhani’s first steps are once again reminiscent of his (and Iran’s) political godfather, Hashemi Rafsanjani. Like Rouhani, Rafsanjani assembled an economic dream team for his cabinet (after first dispatching the most notorious left-wing radical, Ali Akbar Mohtashamipur, who would leave the executive branch and help instigate the reform movement.) He elevated Iran’s storied planning agency to a presidential office, just as Rouhani has promised to reconstitute the agency, which was gutted by Ahmadinejad. Rafsanjani also sought to assemble a cabinet that transcended factions and emphasized competence. (“I picked the proposed members of the cabinet on the basis of their personal capabilities and not for their political leanings,” Rafsanjani argued. “They are practical men and are from all factions.” He also prioritized capability over a past track record of pre-revolutionary activism, noting that prison experience “is a credit, but not essential” for a senior government post.)

Even their inaugural speeches and initial public statements as president were broadly similar. Both Rafsanjani and Rouhani explicitly endorsed moderation, their blunt assessment of the economic challenges facing the country, and appeal for a new era with the international community. Rouhani’s pledge to negotiate seriously on the nuclear issue coupled with his insistence that the United States approach Iran with the language of respect echoes Rafsanjani’s early overtures toward Washington. On the heels of his inauguration, then-President Rafsanjani suggested that practical evidence of a new American approach to Iran would facilitate Tehran’s intervention on behalf of Western hostages held in Lebanon at the time.

In a subsequent post, I’ll go into greater detail about how Rafsanjani’s bids to fix the Iranian economy and improve its trade and diplomatic ties with the West were derailed— and how Tehran and Washington may be able to avoid repeating those mistakes. For now, the parallels between the two presidencies should serve as a powerful reminder of the depth of the crisis facing Iran, and the significance of the opportunity that a moderate Iranian leader is extending to the United States. History may be repeating itself; one can only hope that the missteps and missed signals of the past do not.