Thursday, July 25, 2013

ISDA: Iran’s major foreign policy challenge is to improve its relations with the West and its neighbours and overcome its isolation; from this point of view, Rohani provides a ray of hope

    Thursday, July 25, 2013   No comments

The victory of moderate cleric Hassan Rohani as the President of Iran in many ways is a clear indication of continuity with some change in Iran’s foreign policy in future. In the light of new developments in the region, Iran’s major foreign policy challenge is to improve its relations with the West and its neighbours and overcome its isolation. From this point of view, Rohani provides a ray of hope in terms of some departure in Iran’s foreign policy. This was well articulated by President Rohani in his first press conference as well. The Issue Brief is divided into two parts. The first part looks at the internal political dynamics leading to the victory of Rohani and the second part examines implications change in Iranian leadership post Ahmedinejad for the region and India. The Issue Brief argues that Iran’s foreign policy is likely to witness some remodelling but no major departure from the past.

Rohani’s Victory and Internal Dynamics
After eight years of hardliners’ rule, moderate cleric and reformist candidate Hassan Rohani was elected as Iran’s 11th President on June 14, 2013. The election results came as a surprise not only for the world but also for the Iranians. Rohani secured 50.7 percent (18,613,329) votes and defeated the principlist candidate Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, who secured only 16 percent (6,077,292) votes. Nearly 50.5 million Iranians were eligible to participate in the elections, and Iran’s Interior Ministry announced that the voter turnout was 72.7 percent.1

There are some internal electoral factors which went in favour of Rohani. First, the reformist candidate Mohammad Reza Aref withdrew his candidature and extended his support to Rohani. Second, the endorsement by former Iranian presidents and powerful reformist politicians like Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami and their appeal to the people to vote for Rohani strengthened his position. Third, there was division of votes among the principlist candidates like Qalibaf, Jalili and Velayati. Despite appeal by the powerful cleric Ayatollah Khatami, principlists did not unite and agree for a single candidate to avoid the division of votes. Fourth, more than 1.6 million first-time voters who are young, modern in their outlook and seek changes in their society have chosen to vote in favour of Rohani. Lastly, all the candidates promised for economic reforms but no one made statements regarding easing of tensions with the West and allowing for greater freedom of the press and avoiding unnecessary interference in public life of the he people except Rohani. In addition, Rohani made commitments to to improve relations with the neighbouring countries, end international sanctions and, most importantly, improve Iran’s economic condition. Iran’s currency, the rial, has dropped by more than 50 percent since last year due to sanctions and the inflation rate has also gone up by more than 32 percent.2

Rohani is an experienced cleric and politician who presently represents the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei in the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), and is a member of the Expediency Council and the Assembly of Experts. He is also the director of the Expediency Council's Centre for Strategic Research. In his first press conference on June 17, 2013, Rohani expressed “constructive interaction” with the world through a moderate policy and his administration of “Prudence and Hope” in serving the national objectives. He also said his administration will take steps to ease the “brutal sanctions imposed against Iran over its nuclear programme...”3

Rohani was the head of SNSC and chief negotiator of Iran nuclear programme during 2003 and 2005 under the presidency of Mohammad Khatami. It was during this time that Iran’s covert nuclear programme was discovered in 2003 and the subsequent negotiations led to the famous “Tehran Declaration”4 signed between Iran and the E-3 (UK, France and Germany) leading to Iran freezing its nuclear enrichment programme and offering additional protocols to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Rohani was the architect from the Iranian side.

In the present context, nuclear issue and its resolution holds the key to Iran’s most acute problem; the economic crisis. Crippling sanctions have had an adverse effect on the economy which is slowly emerging as a serious issue of public discontent. The Supreme leader and the President would be hoping that fresh talks under the new leadership could ensure movement forward on the nuclear issue and easing of some economic pressures on Iran.

Rohani, in his first televised speech on June 17, 2013 said, "The sanctions are unfair, the Iranian people are suffering, and our (nuclear) activities are legal. These sanctions are illegal and only benefit Israel", adding that the period of international demands for an end to the nuclear enrichment is over and that the idea is to engage in more active negotiations with the 5+1, as the nuclear issue cannot be resolved without negotiations.5 Rohani with his experience and deliverance on nuclear issue in the past offers hope for some flexibility. Thus, there is strong likelihood on renewed engagement on nuclear talks in the near future. While it may not result in closing down of Iran’s nuclear programme, it might result in some additional concessions from Iran in return for some economic sanction ease by the West – a ‘face saving exit’ for all parties.

Constitutionally, Iran's president does not have the authority to set major policies such as the direction of the nuclear programme or Iran’s relations with the West. All such decisions are taken by the Supreme Leader. Under the current constitutional system, the President can, at best, use his office and his proximity to Khamenei, Rafsanjani and Khatami to influence policies. Rohani will serve as Iran’s main international representative and is likely to present a different tone than his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Rohani can take inspirations from the reformist president Khatami who despite certain disagreements with Khamenei still managed to carry out his policies particularly towards Saudi Arabia and the European countries. The only policy area where Khatami could not impress Khamenei was in his approach to the US. Khamenei remained rigid and cynical about any diplomatic relations with the US but understood that Iranian national interests require furthering relationship with its neighbours as well as its European trading partners. However, during that time Iran supported the US indirectly by helping the former in Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Rohani can take cue from the past and follow the reformist policy of 1997-2005.



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