The success of Hassan Rouhani in the Iranian elections in June has caused an avalanche of speculation. For his expert opinion of events and what we might expect from here on. Pat Lancaster talked to Iranian-born exile, journalist, author, entrepreneur and scholar, Dr Behrooz Behbudi, founder of the Centre for a Democratic Iran.

TME: What is your view of Hassan Rouhani being elected as the seventh President of Iran?

In my opinion the election of Rouhani represents a big “NO” from the Iranian people to all the extremist and radical policies of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Al Khamenei and his supporters. At the same time, it is a meaningful retreat, a U turn by the regime, in the face of the overwhelming demand of millions of people for real change. The choice of someone whose main slogan was in support of “the rule of wisdom and moderation” sends a strong message to a government that during the last eight years has tried to ignore their aspirations, suppressing them with crackdowns and the creation of a climate of fear.

Although the election was again based on choosing someone who had gone through the illegal and anti- constitutional vetting process of the Guardian Council, the support of former presidents of Iran, Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani and Sayed Mohammed Khatami, for Mr Rouhani, led to a direct clash of interest between the people and the regime. Ultimately, the President-Elect was not the regime’s first, or even second choice.

The election of Mr Rouhani has ignited a glimmer of hope amongst Iranians from all corners of the country. All its different religions and ethnicities have been celebrating and, in due time, will present their demands to President-Elect Rouhani and expect him to deliver.

Rouhani campaigned on slogans demanding the path of moderation and a reduction of tensions with the international community. His election sends out a clear message to the people of the world that Iranians are not in favour of war or confrontation with anybody.

They have shown, through the ballot box, that after around 170 years of struggle they continue to remain resolute in their determination to achieve democracy and will fight to achieve it.

TME: As Mr. Rouhani has been Iran’s chief negotiator with western powers over the country’s nuclear dispute, do you think Iran’s nuclear position will become more transparent from now on?

Mr Ahmadinejad was the president of a government hand-picked by the Supreme Leader. Iran’s nuclear programme was diverted away from its original path. The result of this adventurism by the regime was the imposition of harsh economic and political sanctions on Iran, which have had a devastating effect on its people.

Ahmadinejad simply followed Khamenei’s orders. However, there is a distinct difference between him and Rouhani. Ahmadinejad came to power through vote rigging and, therefore, did not care too much about his destructive policies as he lacked any popular backing for them. But today, that situation has been reversed; one of the main reasons for Rouhani’s election was that the Iranian people are sick and tired of the regime’s nuclear policies, which have effectively ruined the country. Mr Rouhani will be under immense pressure in this respect. Currently, any talk of transparency about the country’s nuclear programme is regarded as being anti-Iranian or a possible security risk. This will have to change.

As soon as Rouhani spoke about the issue of talks between Iran and the United States during his first press conference as the President-Elect and mentioned Iran’s nuclear programme, one of the ‘official’ news agencies quickly criticised him for his speech. However, Rouhani has the votes of more than 18 million people behind him, which should be sufficient leverage to force the regime to back off.

However, there is no guarantee the Islamic Republic will choose to compromise with the international community in its nuclear policy. As I have already said, Mr. Rouhani does not have a completely free hand even with the vote of 18 million Iranians. His presidency must be approved and confirmed by the Supreme Leader, which according to the existing constitution, means one man’s vote can override the votes of 18 million citizens. This paradox could lead to an undesirable situation for the nation but, even then, it would still lead to a better era than that we have seen under Ahmadinejad.

In my view, Rouhani must be tactful and call for a referendum on the issue of Iran’s nuclear programme. For the new President-Elect to succeed he must walk a tightrope between the demands of the people he will promise to serve and the ruling regime. Hopefully, he will use this historic opportunity to change the regime’s direction and policies.

TME: In view of Mr Rouhani being the only cleric amongst the eight approved presidential candidates, do you think his election carries any special message from the people of Iran?

Iranians are a religious people but after the calamities the politicised clerics have inflicted on the country we can be sure it is not because Mr Rouhani is a religious figure that they choose him to lead them.

Rouhani has the backing of ayatollahs Hashemi Raf- Sanjani and Mohammad Khatami. While these two men are clerics, Iranians look upon them as voices of opposition within the regime, people not afraid to oppose the government’s policies.

Rafsanjani was disqualified from running in the presidential race by the Guardian Council. Meanwhile, Khatami was branded a traitor and not even allowed to register as a candidate. As such, Iranians see these characters as dissidents.

Let’s not forget that while the other candidates were not clerics, they were relatives, close associates or representatives of the Supreme Leader. Saeed Jalili is Khamenei’s direct representative in the nuclear talks, Hadad Adel is the father of Khamenei’s son in law. Velayeti is his foreign affairs advisor, Qalibaf had been appointed by Khamenei to head Iran’s police force in the past.

Rouhani also has associations; he was a representative of this same Supreme Leader in a number of organisations and government bodies but now – with the support of the Iranian people – he has found a new power base for himself.

The Iranian people have not voted for a cleric, they have voted for fundamental change in the way the country is run.

I referred to the effect of people power in the March issue of The Middle East, when I argued that if Iranians decided to show their collective might and take part in the election then the regime would back off. The electorate did their job, now we must see if Rouhani will do his.

The people are quite separate from the regime. Iranians have an overwhelming desire for freedom, democracy, peaceful coexistence and a friendly relationship with the rest of the world. The election result should speak to the regime in Tehran but also to the international community. The West should realise the government does not represent the will of Iran’s people, all its affairs and policies are determined by just one man.

While the lives of millions of Iranians have been decimated by the results of international sanctions, the regime’s rulers plunder the country’s wealth for themselves, or channel it towards Syria, North Korea or a number of armed Arab radical groups.

TME: How would you describe Mr. Rouhani?

Although Mr Rouhani was educated in Europe, this does not necessarily give him an advantage, since the majority of those in the Islamic Republic’s higher echelons were also educated in Europe, although it seems that on a more personal level, those men all prefer to live in the Middle Ages.

As for Mr Rouhani, unlike other candidates, he promised freedom for political prisoners, freedom of speech, freedom for returnees and an improvement in the status of students and women, alongside better international relations and a shake-up of the domestic economy.

His past work experiences indicate that, compared to the others, he has better managerial skills and a balanced temperament.

Rouhani promised the people he would use all tools available to improve their everyday lives. This will involve trying to get sanctions lifted to allow Iranians access to essential medicines and even the most basic foodstuffs. However, hopefully, it will also mean an opening up of some of the draconian restrictions imposed to restrict domestic freedom of speech and access to information.

Only recently the Centre for a Democratic Iran helped lift sanctions on the export of mobile phones and computers from the West to Iran. The free flow and exchange of information is essential if Iranians are to feel less isolated from the world. Otherwise the bulk of the information and news they receive is via the ‘official’ media and subject to intense government scrutiny. Open access to technology and social media – which the regime cracks down on savagely, especially when it is under outside criticism or threat – can only help the establishment of true democracy. With hindsight, we can see that, previously, this sort of collaboration has been sorely lacking. The focus now, however, is to ensure Mr Rouhani does not succumb to the pressures of Iran’s religious leaders, the militia groups and the Revolutionary Guard, in limiting his promises.

World leaders appear optimistic as demonstrated by French President Hollande, who had rejected the presence of Mr Ahmadinejad in a discussion group on Syria but was happy for Mr Rouhani to attend. I just hope any spirit of tolerance shown towards Iran will not be interpreted domestically as a sign of international approbation for the Supreme Leader whose dictatorial status has brought Iran to its’ knees.

TME: In a recent article in The Middle East Magazine, you said it makes little difference who becomes the President of Iran since real political power rests with the Supreme Leader. Do you now think Mr Rouhani can bring about any real change in Iran’s domestic and foreign policies?

Mr Rouhani has a long and difficult way to go in his capacity as President of Iran. He has inherited a devastated country from Ahmadinejad. The extremist dominated Majlis is not in line with his declared mission statement and the Revolutionary Guard and their vested interests are another major problem. Above all, we have the Supreme Leader. However, with 18 million Iranians publicly rejecting his policies, the Supreme Leader is now facing a new set of challenges.

The majority vote for Rouhani does not mean the many hidden interest groups and dark forces hidden in the labyrinth of power in the Islamic Republic will allow him to carry out his declared reformist policies. But one hopes they will not again try to put obstacles on his path to reform, as they have previously done with impunity.

In 2013 Iranians are politically more mature than at the last elections eight years ago and their response to the economic impact of international sanctions has left the regime in no doubt it is sitting on a powder keg. Therefore, expect conservatives and radicals to make concessions but not to the extent of overshadowing the Supreme Leader’s spheres of power.

Rouhani must believe his majority vote means Iranians will back him against any moves by conservatives to undermine his authority and objectives. At the same time, the global community must think of him as the democratically elected true representative of Iranian hopes and aspirations.

Iran is an ancient country with a civilisation that goes back many thousands of years. The first ever charter of human rights came out of this civilisation but it is also a land where the history of struggle for democracy is greater than most.

Today Mr Rouhani and all the countries of both the region and the world should know that Iranians have voted rationally for changes that in some other nations are being waged through bloodshed and war. In this election the Iranian electorate has peacefully and legitimately pursued its ambitions through the ballot box.

The more Hassan Rouhani remains dedicated to carrying out his pledges the more his policies will promote change. If he acts in accordance with his election pledges to meet the wishes of the Iranian people, there is no end to the goals that might be achieved.

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