Iran: Rouhani win brings hope for change

Issue 

Hassan Rouhani was inaugurated as the president of Iran on August 4. He was elected in June, after mass mobilisations swept the country in support of his candidacy.

Those who supported him saw his election as the best way to open up space for reforms within the country. However, he is not an outsider to the system.

Rouhani was on Iran's nuclear negotiating team and was the country's top negotiator with the European Union on Iran's nuclear program from 2003 to 2009. He received official endorsement from Iran's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, on August 3.

Rouhani is not just a cleric, but an academic and lawyer who has held key responsibilities in the Islamic regime, including as head of the Center for Strategic Research since 1992.

However, Rouhani came to be seen as the best candidate for those hoping for change in the June presidential elections.

Tehran’s streets filled with people expressing their happiness, chanting “Ahmadi, bye bye,” referring to the end of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's eight years as president. Millions of Iranians rejected the results of the 2009 election that returned Ahmadinejad to power, which lead to the “Green Movement” whose main slogan was, “Where is my vote?”

The movement extended beyond challenging electoral fraud to demand workers' and women’s rights.

While people celebrated the end of Ahmadinejad's rule on the streets, on social media Iranians used the phrase “Eight years of holy defence”, intended to associate his reign with the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.

This was a reference to the many newspapers shut down, journalists arrested and NGOs banned during Ahmadinejad's presidency. They were tough days for Iranian activists, many of whom were jailed, left the country or who dropped out of activity.

For the first time since the 1979 Islamic revolution, Rouhani's inauguration featured leaders invited from other nations. The most interesting guest was Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, who sat in the front row for the inauguration.

Rouhani said: “The government of hope and prudence will try to establish mutual respect and confidence with other nations.”

In an August 6 press conference, Rouhani said: “Provided that our national interests are met, we have no problems with negotiations with anyone with good intentions, including the US.”

Rouhani’s priority is lifting sanctions imposed on Iran by the United Nations Security Council over its nuclear program. He also emphasised Iran’s right to seek nuclear power as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. He said: “The sanctions have nothing to do with the nuclear story. They are about pressuring our people”.

The US House of Representatives passed a sanctions bill just days before Rouhani's inauguration. It further limits Iran's access to the global market for oil exports.

These sanctions ultimately limit any financial transaction. This makes it difficult to import medicine and raw materials into Iran. One consequence is that thousands of workplaces are being closed.

Sanctions have crippled the daily lives of Iranians, especially low-income groups. The poor are suffering under the burden of rampant inflation, as well as shortages of medical supplies and other basic necessities.

Rouhani said: “Sanctions have piled great pressure on the people but their huge turnout in election proves they safeguard the nation.”

He added: “If you want [the] right response from Iran it should not be through language of sanctions, it should be through language of respect.”

Rouhani’s mandate is to try to lift the terrible burden on the daily lives of Iranians caused by sanctions without compromising Iran’s national independence. There is also widespread desire for internal reforms, including the release of political prisoners.

Expectations are high, but it is not yet clear how much room Rouhani will have to move. Internationally, he has imperialist powers intent on trying to make living conditions worse for Iranians to force Iran to submit to their will. At home, the new president faces an establishment very resistant to internal reforms.