Rouhani Report Card: More Prudence Than Hope for Iran’s Domestic Politcs

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a five-part SERIES assessing the track record of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, marking his first year in office. Read the overview analysis here, an examination of his foreign policy here, and economic policy here.

Yesterday, in a speech broadcast live on state television, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani declared that opponents of his policies should go to hell. It was a rare, but not unprecedented, loss of composure by a politician who has anchored his strategy in judiciousness. In fact, Rouhani branded his administration “the government of prudence and hope.” Political slogans, particularly in Iran’s Islamic Republic, are often empty rhetoric. However, ‘prudence and hope’ has proven a fitting signature for Rouhani’s particular approach to the rowdy, unpredictable sport that is Iranian domestic politics — an outlook that relies on hard-nosed realism with aspiration and occasionally even inspiration.

Judged by these standards, Rouhani has lived up to his billing in his first year in office, on the domestic front as well as on foreign policy. He has returned Iran’s political dynamic to a steadier equilibrium and restored some confidence in the competence of the central government. This is not transformational leadership, but few if any Iranians expected that from a man who had been part of the theocratic system since its creation. And Rouhani, despite running a slyly insurgent campaign for the presidency, took care not to pin his presidency on soaring promises. 

After a period in which Iran’s perennial factional infighting had escalated near the breaking point, the fulfillment of modest expectations is a welcome relief for many in Iran and the return of a certain degree of calm and balance on the domestic front is an important stabilizing factor for the regime itself. Combined with his international overtures, Rouhani’s style of statecraft is seen as the pathway to restoring Iran’s internal environment and place in the world to “a normal state,” as Gholamhossein Karbaschi, the former Tehran mayor, said in an April interview.

After Rouhani’s election last year, I described him as a fixer — a politician who had been tapped “to wrest Iran from its debilitating battle with the international community over the nuclear issue,” much in the same way that former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was given a mandate to end the war with Iraq a quarter-century earlier. Rouhani’s first year in office has validated that assessment, and in fact the same mission extends to domestic politics. Rouhani’s mandate for problem-solving and conciliation among the Islamic Republic’s competing factions is at least as consequential for the regime’s future as his bid to extricate the country from its nuclear impasse.

His approach to domestic politics is grounded in two basic criteria. The first is a disavowal of extremism, which in the Iranian context is equated with polarization and partisanship. Rouhani has made dispensing hard truths his trademark, and he has occasionally lost his cool in the process. However, he abhors the indulgence and even encouragement of provocative policies that characterized his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. His repudiation of extremism also extends, somewhat more subtly, to the reformists, whose ambitious pursuit of rapid liberalization was seen as nearly as destabilizing.

Countering ‘Extremism’ with Political Calm

The role meshes well with his personality. Just call him “No Drama Rouhani” — Iran’s president is a painstakingly deliberative politician. As he insisted in an August 2013 speech before the parliament, “I am not the kind of person who decides while under pressure. I will not do this.” Prior to his inauguration, he established working groups on the economy, politics, foreign policy and society, with sub-working groups that drew on at least 500 experts. Their goal was to recommend ministerial appointments and devise agendas for his administration. It was the work of a wonk, not a firebrand or a philosopher, descriptions that fit his two immediate predecessors Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Mohammad Khatami respectively.

In June, Rouhani asserted that the election was a rejoinder to extremists at home and abroad: “the foreign extremists who thought that they could bring the nation to its knees through pressure and threats. And [there was] a message for the extremists in the county who thought they had many supporters and that they could continue the path of radicalism and violence in the country.”

Rouhani’s Balancing Act

The other essential aspect of Rouhani’s strategy toward the domestic political scene is his determination to remain above the fray of Iran’s warring influence groups. Like his ally and mentor, former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, he seeks to transcend factional loyalties, although this intention is inevitably undermined by the simple reality that this too is a factional perspective.

When he selected his cabinet, the president insisted that his choices reflected merit and comptence, not factional affiliation. “The government is not a stock exchange to decide the shares of this group or that current…. the basis of my choice was not the bargaining of groups and factions, nor their pressure.”

Still, balance is difficult to achieve in a country that has jailed two leading politicians who ran for Rouhani’s own post. Former Prime Minister Mir Hussein Mousavi and former Majlis Speaker Mehdi Karroubi have now spent more than three years under a severely constraining house arrest for their refusal accept the dubious outcome of the 2009 presidential election, and a host of other reformist politicians remain in prison or in exile.

The semi-tolerated status of the reform movement and the explicit repression of many of its leaders represents a continuing dilemma for Rouhani and the state that he leads. Iranian officials are wont to note, his inauguration ceremony drew representatives from 55 countries, and congratulatory messages from around the world. However, one individual was notable for his absence: Khatami. Khatami is not simply one of Rouhani’s four living predecessors; he also happens to be the individual who, as Iran’s most popular politician, is most responsible for Rouhani’s election. And yet he remains subject to intense pressure from hard-liners, sanctioned by Iran’s supreme leader; unable to travel abroad or participate in official functions, Khatami occupies a discomfiting limbo between pariah and prophet.

Rouhani’s inability and/or inaction on healing the breach with the reformists remains a key vulnerability for his presidency. Crowds attending an event marking the anniversary of his June 2013 election repeatedly interrupted the president’s speech with chants of “Ya Hoseyn, Mir Hoseyn” and other references to the jailed opposition leaders.

First Year Calm — But What Comes Next?

The prioritization of moderation and balance has helped ensure that Rouhani’s first year has been a walk in the park, relatively speaking. Iranian presidents have often struggled in their initial months to manage the country’s turbulent politics. Khatami once characterized his first term as a crisis every nine days; in his first year or so alone, those crises included the impeachment of his interior minister and the trial and conviction of another key ally on politicized corruption charges.

Even Ahmadinejad, who initially boasted the vocal backing of Iran’s supreme leader, was forced to resubmit four separate nominees for the Oil Ministry slot before he won parliamentary approval, and found himself the subject of widespread mockery over a leaked video of his eschatological commentary on his maiden trip to New York. He faced even more severe and humiliating trials by his final years in office, including an unprecedented grilling before the parliament in 2012.

Although an activist parliament has challenged several of his ministers, Rouhani has mostly avoided those early battles. Iran remains an intensely politicized society, but the domestic debate over his policies — even the ambitious ones, like the nuclear diplomacy — has not yet escalated to levels that would significantly constrain his room for maneuver. 

However, his challenges are intensifying. Ultimately, although he set his goals judiciously, Rouhani will not be judged by the standards of his modest intentions. Instead, the benchmark applied to his presidency will be the buoyant hopes generated by his unexpected, telegenic electoral victory — expectations that were further buoyed by his slick PR strategy and a countenance that, unlike his predecessor, appears more affable than irrational. Iranians have waited a long time for a normal state, and the 2009 unrest suggests that they will not wait quietly forever.

Meanwhile, if past is prologue, Rouhani’s influence will erode, not expand, over time. It remains to be seen if yesterday’s strident denunciation of those who oppose his more internationalist approach to the world represents a tactical shift toward escalation, or just a moment of distemper. Rouhani’s second year on the job will likely require a new formula for advancing his agenda if he is to avoid the fates of his predecessors.