Hassan Rouhani has undoubtedly won a brilliant victory in the presidential election, with a tally exceeding 60% of the valid votes cast in its first and only round (the 57% figure usually cited by the media included blank and invalid ballots). The result has exceeded the predictions of most experts. It provides Rouhani with a strengthened mandate to implement the campaign pledges that he already made during his first election in 2013 and that he reiterated during the latest campaign: more freedom for Iranian society and a more positive interaction with the rest of the world. These mutually reinforcing policies should lead to greater prosperity.
But this popular support won’t be enough to persuade the main pillars of the Islamic Republic—the Supreme Leader, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and the judiciary—to acquiesce in such a program. For the conservative core of the regime, Rouhani has fulfilled his historical task by concluding the Vienna nuclear agreement of 2015 and would be well advised to confine himself henceforth to the management of current affairs.
Will the incumbent president be able to escape the curse that struck his two predecessors during their second terms? Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, though supported initially by the most powerful elements of the regime, ended up at war with all his patrons and unable to take the slightest initiative. Before him, Mohammad Khatami had seen the ultra-conservative Guardian Council rescind all the progressive legislation passed by a friendly parliament. More recently, Ahmadinejad was barred from running in the last presidential election, as another former president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, had been in 2013. Since 2015, all Iranian media have been banned from even mentioning Khatami. In Iran, being a president of the Republic is indeed a risky proposition.
Of course, Rouhani could bet on the prompt demise of the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, aged 77 and seriously ill, as an opportunity to reshuffle the cards of Iranian political life. But he would put himself entirely into the hands of providence. And Khamenei is almost certainly preparing the ground for two or three potential successors whose views are unlikely to differ significantly from his. Even if this succession were to come on short notice, there is no guarantee that Rouhani’s task would be made easier.
The Fights to Come
If Rouhani does not want to reach the end of his term of office discredited and rejected by his electorate, he will have to engage in some tough fights and be prepared to break some of the Islamic Republic’s most sacred crockery. Rouhani knows that internal and external openings tend to interact and that he will have to act simultaneously on both fronts. Fortunately, some steps forward, highly symbolic but also carrying tangible effects, are within his reach, whatever the formidable obstacles looming before him.
On the domestic front, for instance, the Law Commission of the Iranian parliament has already pronounced itself in favor of a draft amendment to the criminal code abolishing the death penalty for drug offenders. The adoption of such a bill by the parliament, if confirmed by the Guardian Council, would reduce the number of executions in Iran by about 90%, from at least several hundreds per year to a few dozen. Even if that would still be too many, it would mark the end of the disastrous image of Iran as the world’s first or second country for the number of executions per capita.
On the international front, two dramatic gestures would allow Iran to surprise even its most hostile adversaries and position itself as a regional trailblazer in the field of nuclear and ballistic non-proliferation.
Movement on Missiles
The first one would be to join the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). By ratifying a text that it already signed in 1996, Iran would incur no new obligations, as it has already renounced the development or acquisition of a nuclear weapon when it acceded to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But it would set an example for its neighbors, and even beyond, as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel, and even the United States and China have yet to join the CTBT. At the turn of the century, Iran already authorized the CTBT Organization to install on its territory automated seismic stations designed to detect nuclear explosions. If this arrangement were reactivated, it would send an additional positive signal to the international community.
The second gesture would be for Iran to join the Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation adopted in The Hague in 2002. Iranian experts participated at the first preparatory meeting but dropped out later. In essence, this code requires its signatories to provide an annual declaration on the outline of their ballistic missile and space launch policies, disclose the number and characteristics of ballistic and space vehicles launched in the previous year, and provide advance notice of launches and test flights. In this age of worldwide satellite observation, such transparency measures would in no way jeopardize Iran’s ballistic defense decision-making autonomy. It could also exert a deterrent effect probably more effective than the usual bombastic declarations coming from Tehran on the subject.
The powerful IRGC manages the Iranian ballistic missile program, but Rouhani should be able to overcome its possible institutional resistance, much as he did in 2003 when dealing with the nuclear file. In that episode, he demonstrated that he had enough energy and political will to secure from the IRGC the cessation of some controversial nuclear activities. If he could convince the IRGC of Iran’s interest to adopt the Hague Code of Conduct , Tehran would position itself as the vanguard of its region, given that the kingdoms of the Arabic peninsula, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Israel have yet to join this agreement.
The Role of Others
These possible moves by Iran should, of course, be encouraged and also reciprocated in one way or another. At the very least, the present US administration should perceive them as a signal of good will. For its part, Israel could find in such moves an indication that the “Iranian threat” could become less “existential” than before, even if Netanyahu might find it difficult to publicly admit. Saudi Arabia, which has asked repeatedly for “deeds, not words,” would thus receive an appropriate answer. And of course, the P5+1 countries that concluded the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran—China, France, Germany, Russia, United Kingdom, United States—would bear a special collective responsibility to respond.
The last provision of the agreement’s preamble states that Iran and its six interlocutors, plus the representative of the European Union, shall meet at the ministerial level every two years, or earlier if needed. Two ministerial meetings have already taken place in New York, in September of 2015 and 2016 on the sidelines of the session of the UN General Assembly. Can we nurture the hope to see the next, and possibly fruitful, meeting in September this year?