This past weekend, centrist candidate Hassan Rohani won the Iranian presidential election by a landslide. Rohani beat the two perceived front-runners who were hand-selected conservative loyalists to supreme leader Ali Khamenei — and he did it with an outright majority, bypassing an expected run-off. According to the interior ministry, turnout topped 72 percent — a level that the United States hasn’t attained in a century
During the campaign, Rohani declared, “We will open all the locks which have been fastened upon people’s lives.” But while Rohani’s sweeping victory comes as a big surprise, it’s no shock to the system in Iran. Don’t expect Rohani to open the locks fastened upon Iranian policy. He simply doesn’t hold the keys.
All major decisions on foreign policy go through the Ayatollah. In Iran, the president doesn’t have the last word on the most important security matters, like the nuclear program and Syria. Sanctions will remain in place for the foreseeable future, putting a ceiling on the near-term economic improvements that Rohani can implement. Lastly, even if Rohani did have free rein, he would not upend the system. He is a consummate insider, working his way up within the Iranian establishment: he ran Iran’s national security council for almost two decades, spent three years as the top nuclear negotiator, and he maintains the trust of the clerics. He campaigned as a moderate, not a reformer.
That being said, when President Rohani takes office in August, he will have the potential to bring about meaningful changes within the confines of these restrictions.
It’s important to understand just how low the bar is set. Rohani is charismatic, thoughtful and pragmatic — this vaults him far above the outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, known for aggressive ideologies and rhetoric that springs from the realm of the absurd. President Ahmadinejad’s routine denunciations of Israel have made it impossible for the United States to make progress negotiating with him on the nuclear issue; even if the U.S. were so inclined, his rhetoric and lofty demands have undermined any common ground.