Will Iranian President Rouhani’s Second Term Be Different?

photo: AP/EBRAHIM NOROOZI

May was a huge success for Iranian president Hassan Rouhani. He was re-elected with a landslide majority (57 percent) in the presidential elections, defeating his hardline competitor, Ebrahim Raisi, and helping his faction win most of the municipal elections in Iran.

In most presidential democracies, a popular mandate like this would have given Rouhani a carte blanche to pursue his “Moderation and Prudence” policy in domestic and international arenas, as a basis for recovering Iran’s failed economy. But Iran isn’t a democracy, and its president’s influence over foreign and regional issues has, in the past, proven to be limited.

Nonetheless, though his influence over regional policy is fairly limited, the newly re-elected Iranian president could hamper some of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp’s (IRGC) plans in the region, if he thought those collide with Iranian interests and might trigger harsh sanctions or use of force against Iran and its allies.

The Iranian System: Constraints and Obstacles for the President

Though the Iranian president has an important position in the Iranian regime, he plays “second fiddle” to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The president is the head of the Supreme Council for National Security, but the council’s decisions need to be confirmed by the Supreme Leader before being executed. The president oversees the Iranian defense ministry, which is responsible for Iranian force buildup, and controls large part of the defense budget, but he is not the commander in chief of the armed forces nor does he have direct control over the military. And while the president can influence Iran’s foreign policy through its foreign ministry, most of Iran’s regional activities are being executed by the IRGC and its paramilitary unit known as the Qods Force, which reports directly to the Supreme Leader.

Furthermore, since the office of the president was instituted in 1989, the Islamic Republic has not been kind to second-term presidents. They all turned out to be “lame ducks,” who were hindered from pursuing their policy agendas due to pushback from hardliners, tacitly approved by Khamenei.

Former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani attempted to reach out to Europe during the 1990s, though a series of actions by hardliners, most notably the 1989 Salman Rushdie fatwa, the 1992 murder of Iranian Kurdish oppositionists at the “Mykonos” restaurant in Berlin, and the 1994 bombing of Jewish community’s AMIA building in Buenos Aires, prevented him from achieving his goal. Mohammad Khatami’s “Dialogue of Civilizations” and his attempt to reach out to the U.S. were hampered by Khamenei and the hardliners, who also embarked on a campaign to restrain the Reformists by closing newspapers, intimidating reformers, and quashing student protests. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spent his last two years in office fighting Khamenei, and becoming the first president since the 80’s to be summoned to the Majles [the Iranian Parliament] for questioning. He even engaged in an 11-day boycott of cabinet meetings and formal ceremonies, due to his disagreements with Khamenei.

Why Rouhani’s Second Tenure Might Be Different

Rouhani could be Khamenei’s last president. The supreme leader is 77-years-old, and although he continues to make frequent public appearances, the possibility of his departure from the scene has been raised several times over the last year. The supreme leader himself even alluded to this in some of his speeches and public meetings with the Iranian leadership. A desire to shape the post-Khamenei era could intensify clashes between Rouhani and the hardliners, as both sides consider it as a prelude to the coming succession fight and the struggle for the future of the Iranian revolution.

It won’t come as a surprise if Khamenei or members of his entourage (his son Mojtaba, or other Supreme Leader Office officials) will also intervene in the struggle, trying to restrain Rouhani and prevent him from consolidating too much power and support before the succession struggle commences for real.

Rouhani for his part is not naïve. He was a key decision-maker, even before Khomeini took power, and served in a variety of positions, including SCNS secretary, Air Force commander, and Majles deputy speaker. This could help him to foresee some of the political maneuvers that his rivals might attempt. Moreover, the popular support he enjoys, along with the alliances he crafted with major players in the political arena (like Majles speaker Ali Larijani), might help Rouhani fight back more effectively than previous presidents could.

Looking forward, the question remains: will past patterns repeat themselves with Rouhani serving out as a lame duck president, or will his popular support provide a mandate that will spare him the fate of his predecessors and enable him to continue advancing his agenda in his second term?

Possible Future Trajectory and Implications for Iranian Regional Policy

If historical precedent prevails, Rouhani could be yet another “lame duck” president, prevented from influencing Iranian core issues, such as relations with the U.S. or Iran’s regional policy. The IRGC would continue its aggressive activities in the region, its effort to establish a “Shi’ite Crescent” in the Levant, and its harassment of American and Gulf naval forces in the Strait of Hormuz and Bab al-Mandab. This trend might even intensify once ISIL is defeated, and Iranian sponsored militias are free to act against American interests in Iraq.

A more optimistic scenario might be a fierce pushback by Rouhani. This could be a result of a conscious effort by Rouhani to shape the succession fight, or because he would consider IRGC’s aggressive actions as a hindrance to his goal of improving the economy. Though his influence is limited, Rouhani could use the tools at his disposal to impede the IRGC’s effort. These include decreasing defense budget allocations, using his control over the defense ministry to hinder cooperation with the IRGC, advancing diplomatic efforts to provide an alternative to the IRGC’s policy, and publicly attacking Khamenei and the guards (witness Rouhani’s attacks on the Khamenei’s legitimacy, and on the guards and their role in the economy over the past weeks). This probably won’t change Iran’s policy, but it might create some “bumps” in the road for the IRGC and could define the contours of the post-Khamenei power struggle. 

Finally, though rivals, Rouhani could choose to cooperate with IRGC’s policy in the region and even support it by providing additional resources. This could be an outcome of a compromise between the camps, or of a deliberate decision by Rouhani to focus on issues he considers more urgent, such as economic reforms or consolidating power through the Majles and the municipal level. This could also be a result of an understanding by Rouhani that an assertive role in the region actually serves Iran better in projecting power and deterring the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. After all, Rouhani was the secretary of SCNS when Iran helped build Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal and ordered its proxies in Iraq to attack American forces. He is certainly not averse to Tehran’s preference for playing “hardball.”

Conclusions

Rouhani is a skillful politician and has already leveraged his popular support to convince the Iranian leadership to agree to a historic nuclear deal. Nevertheless, he is not, and probably will not be, in a position to have similar influence over Iran’s regional activities. The regional policy will continue to be shaped by the IRGC and its Qods Force, along the lines determined by Supreme Leader Khamenei.

Moreover, Rouhani is not a reformist nor does he seek a peaceful resolution to all regional problems. He supports the buildup of Iran’s missile arsenal and sees merits in projecting power through proxies in the region and through resistance to the U.S. and its allies. While for hardliners, especially Qassem Soleimani, Qods Force commander, “resistance” is almost everything, Iran’s regional activities are important for Rouhani only to the degree that they endanger Iranian core interests.

Thus, Rouhani may be persuaded to use his authority to hamper the IRGC’s plans, if he believes it poses a real danger to his agenda. Such a danger could be a result, for instance, of a more assertive U.S. policy that includes threats to impose new sanctions in response to Iranian malign behavior and to use force against Iran or its proxy network in response to Iranian actions. This may not stop Iran, but it might place obstacles in the way of those Iranian officials committed to destabilize the region.

Omer Carmi is a visiting military fellow at The Washington Institute. For the last several years, Omer has led analytical and research efforts in the Israeli Defense Forces pertaining to developments in the Middle Eastern and National Security arenas. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Israeli Defense Forces or the Israeli government.