By George Semaan
The new Iranian President Sheikh Hassan Rohani is assuming the presidency in difficult and complicated times for his country and the region. He is facing the remnants of eight years of his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s consecutive terms, which were the worst in the history of the Islamic Republic on the domestic and foreign levels, and threatened the country’s national interests with the deepening of the disputes between the political movements and the mounting tensions between the regime’s pillars and institutions. In addition, demonstrations and protests which followed the 2009 presidential elections shook the authority and social fabric and increased polarization and oppression. The economic and social crisis also escalated due to the poor governmental performance and the spread of corruption and nepotism, as well as the mismanagement of foreign policy, especially the nuclear file, which increased the sanctions and tightened the blockade. And during the past two years, the Arab spring increased the challenges facing Tehran and toppled the balance of power and the prevailing network of relations throughout the Middle East, whose regional system collapsed along with ruling regimes here and there.
This heavy legacy which has been accumulating since 2005 was the first and main factor considered by the Iranians when selecting their new president, while the economic crisis and its ties with domestic and foreign issues was the greatest voter. This is why it will be at the top of Sheikh Rohani’s list of priorities. But his citizens will have to wait a long time, considering that the desired change will not happen as easily as they expect it. Indeed, the new president exited the womb of the political regime and did not come from outside of it. He was the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, the Guide’s representative, a member of the Expediency Discernment Council and the Assembly of Experts. This means that any change at the level of the domestic and foreign policies will remain under the tutelage and with the consent of the Guide, as long as the constitution which has been in place for three decades has not been amended. Moreover, the balance of power inside the Shura Council remains in favor of the conservative movement whose candidates failed to compete with Sheikh Rohani, not to mention the weight enjoyed by the military and security forces, apparatuses and militias, especially the Revolutionary Guide and its various branches. The latter constitute more than two thirds of the republic’s economic, commercial and industrial cycle, just like the military institution in Egypt, and have their say at the level of the domestic and foreign policy-making, or the decision-making process at the very least.
Hence, any domestic change would be impossible if it were to shift away from the regime’s principles or affect the core of the revolution and the system tying the ruling institutions, while any change would be impossible at the level of the regional and international foreign policy if it were to threaten to undermine the strategy built by the Islamic Republic throughout three decades. And whether the new president is classified as being a reformist, a conservative or between the two, Iran will continue to move underneath the guide’s cloak, regardless of the Iranians’ aspirations. Before Ahmadinejad, the latter had chosen President Mohammad Khatami for two terms, hoping to rebuild the relations with the West in general and settle the disputes with the United States. But throughout eight years, the reformist president failed to change the republic’s course, thus merely ensuring some sort of a truce or an appeasement with the region and the international community, and decreasing the tensions and threats with the outside world. Today, the hardliners perceive him as being a symbol of strife, and some of them inside the Shura Council are even calling for the exclusion of candidates to occupy ministerial posts in the new government for being close to him or to similar symbols.
Rohani will not be able to change many equations on the domestic arena unless he reopens the door before a minimum level of liberties and finds a formula to cooperate with all the movements, so as to ensure their reunification under the regime’s cloak. This is one of the Guide’s main goals, after he suffered for a long time from the problems left behind by President Ahmadinejad, in a way that almost toppled all the beliefs and principles. And unless this goal is achieved, the new president will not be able to act to contain the inflation, stop the national currency devaluation, suspend the policy of austerity, entice investors, enhance commercial imports and exports, and revive the banking sector.
But these internal files will not be settled and will not have acceptable and fast solutions, regardless of Rohani’s ability to induce change or the guide’s wish to alleviate popular disgruntlement. Indeed, they are among the repercussions of Iran’s foreign policy, and are more linked to these repercussions than to the new president’s achievements on the internal scene and his ability to mend the relations between the various movements. And it is not enough for him to resort to the reconciliatory discourse currently seen towards the international community and his regional neighbors, knowing that the two most heated issues nowadays are naturally the Iranian nuclear file and the position towards the Syrian crisis, which pushed the sectarian conflict to the brink of the abyss.
During the past decade, President Khatami’s government managed to keep the nuclear file in the hands of the International Atomic Energy Agency. But President Ahmadinejad’s hostile policy and political and media rhetoric provoked hostility with the international community, which took the file to the Security Council and consequently to the table of the P5+1 group. International sanctions were then followed by stronger unilateral American and European ones, knowing that it would definitely be difficult to reach an understanding similar to the one sealed by Khatami’s government to suspend enrichment in 2003. The nuclear program is as much a component of the national spirit, part of the Republic’s strategy and a booster of its regional role, as it is a factor of tension with the near and distant outside world. And the ongoing war in Syria and Iran’s implication in it through fighters from Hezbollah, the Revolutionary Guard and some Iraqi militias, can only complicate any settlement surrounding this program.
For a long time, Iran relied on a series of elements to build its foreign strategy. It thus hastened the establishment of a nuclear program and the building of a massive missile arsenal. It deepened its role in Baghdad and became the first ally and main supporter of the regime in Syria, for which it provided a bridge into Lebanon, Israel’s border and the Mediterranean shores. In addition, it did not conceal its expansion to Gaza and North Africa, but also from Sudan to a number of African states to compensate for its troubled relations with influential states and from Turkey to India and Brazil among others. Still, the Baghdad-Damascus-Beirut triangle remained the main pillar of this entire strategy. At the beginning of the Syrian crisis, there was a lot of talk about a possible deal between Tehran and its opponents, by which it would trade this card with others enjoyed by the Republic. However, a logical and realistic look at the developments in the region does not herald the existence of an opportunity for such tradeoffs.
A quick look at the Iranian triangle also reveals the depth of the challenges facing President Rohani and reflecting on the internal issues. On the eve of President Rohani’s assumption of his responsibilities, the U.S. House of Representatives ratified new sanctions against the Iranian oil sector. For its part, Iraq is quickly returning to the situation which prevailed a decade ago, as the current government – through its factional policy and its support to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime – secured the necessary climate for Al-Qaeda to regain its social base in the Sunni provinces. This is not to mention its continuously tense relations with the Kurdistan province and many other neighboring states, and the depletion of the Iranian military, financial and human capabilities in the long war in Syria. This is in addition to the repercussions of this war on the situation in Lebanon where Hezbollah’s participation in the Syrian clashes is provoking the reassessment of the political and sectarian alignments and heralding an imminent explosion amidst a frightening political and government vacuum. And there is no doubt that any concession offered by Tehran in the Levant threatens to topple all that it built throughout decades under the slogan of “rejectionism and resistance”!
In addition to all these negative factors surrounding the pillars of the Iranian strategy, the current fallout of the Arab spring on throughout the region, and especially Egypt, caused the retreat of the attention attributed to Palestinian cause, i.e. the basis of the Iranian discourse and rush towards the Arab world. There is no doubt that the resumption of the talks between the Palestinian authority and Israel in the midst of these developments and under American tutelage, reveals Tehran’s inability to interfere, whether via Lebanon, Gaza or any other. Hence, President Rohani has no option but to move fast from the stage of intentions to that of the definition of the goals, in order to change the facts and strategies. So, can he conduct a drastic reassessment of the Islamic Republic’s policy with all that this requires in terms of painful concessions? Can he do that in light of internal polarization, so as not to say the divided movements and the prevalence of the power centers and their tools? Or will he settle for wasting time while wagering on the appeasement of the situation with the outside world, as it was done by his predecessor Khatami? Domestic economy and the developments seen in the Great Middle East, from the Mediterranean to Afghanistan, do not tolerate the luxury of anticipation. They require urgent decisions at the level of the nuclear file, the Syrian crisis – along with the network of regional and international relations connected to them – and the Palestinian cause, as this is the only way to reactivate Iran’s economic wheel.