Iranians elected a new president over the weekend amid hopes that life will be better than it was under departing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Parallel hopes rose in Washington and other world capitals that incoming President Hassan Rowhani, a reputed “moderate,” will be a more flexible negotiator than his predecessor.
Any change from the fire-breathing, messianic Ahmadinejad should be an improvement in the political climate, both in Iran and abroad.
But a change in the atmosphere of Iranian politics is not the same as a change in policy, and on the major points of disagreement between Iran and the international community Rowhani is unlikely to differ from his predecessor, for good reason.
Iran’s president has no real power over the nation’s foreign and military policies.
That role is reserved for the unelected Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his military advisers.
So President Rowhani, despite conciliatory gestures toward the Iranian people and foreign governments, is not going to be able to deliver much economic relief to Iranians or reach agreements with the United Nations unless the Supreme Leader is ready to meet its demands that he suspend Iran’s program for uranium enrichment, a precursor to acquiring nuclear weapons.
Ayatollah Khamenei has given no sign that he is ready to make any concessions.
Defiance remains his posture. Indeed, responding last week to remarks by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, noting that Iran’s elections still fail international standards for fairness, freedom of choice and transparency, the ayatollah said, “To hell with you.”
Secretary Kerry’s remarks were on target. The eight candidates in Saturday’s Iranian president election were selected by the unelected Guardian Council, which follows the Supreme Leader’s guidance. The Council carefully screened out any candidate who might disagree with Khamenei.
The candidates who survived to run for president offered a very limited range of choice.
The Iranian people, in a sign of their desire for a real change, overwhelmingly supported Mr. Rowhani, who promised the most moderation in addressing lifestyle issues and who seemed to them most likely to find a way to improve standards of living.
In that regard, the election results were at least a positive indicator.
But incoming President Rowhani is unlikely to provide leadership toward a more democratic government or reach agreement with the United Nations on its nuclear program.
He led a brutal crackdown on students demanding more democracy in 1999 and openly supports Iran’s nuclear ambitions. He also has served as Iran’s negotiator on nuclear issues.
The White House is, of course, right to welcome any true sign that Iran might be open to change, and to offer talks on re-integrating Iran into the community of nations.
But it would be wise to remember that Mr. Rowhani, like Mr. Ahmadinejad, effectively serves as the secular mask for Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s intransigent theocrat.
Any change will likely be more of style than substance.