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Iran's Hope and Change Election?

Interviewee: Ray Takeyh, Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations
Interviewer: Robert McMahon, Editor, Council on Foreign Relations
June 16, 2013

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Iranians have elected Hassan Rowhani, a 64-year-old cleric deemed the most moderate of six candidates, as president, succeeding Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. CFR Senior Fellow Ray Takeyh says the result is important because of Rowhani's criticism of the country's domestic and foreign policy. But he cautions against expecting major concessions in big power talks over its nuclear program and says a test of his authority in the months ahead is whether he is able to ease repression.

Hassan Rohani, the candidate considered most moderate in Iran's presidential election, has won by a landslide in the first round. How significant is that?

It is enormously important. He was a critic of the Islamic Republic's conduct of both its domestic and international policy. He was a person that was persistently vilified by the Right for his previous pragmatism. So it is important.

What were the main themes in his campaign that resonated?

Better management at home and moderation abroad.

Does the fact that his victory was allowed indicate a broader pragmatism among regime elites?

It's too soon to make such a broad pronouncement. It is entirely possible that the Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Khamenei] miscalculated the appeal of his conservative candidates and the plausibility of Rowhani's candidacy. The point, though, that needs to be made is that there are pragmatists in the system and they do have important layers of power in their hands. In some ways, the Islamic Republic will be returning to the 1990s, when unelected branches of government tried to influence and negate the initiatives of the more moderate elected ones.

Rowhani was a nuclear negotiator in 2003, when Iran agreed to suspend the country's uranium enrichment program. Does his victory improve prospects for Iran to agree to meaningful compromises on talks over its nuclear program?

He is an advocate of seeing the nuclear program in the context of Iran's overall foreign policy. That makes him prone to a serious dialogue. He is, however, taking over the office of the presidency when Iran has a fairly mature nuclear program. In 2003, he was negotiating about what kind of a program Iran was allowed to build. Talks today will be focusing on what kind of program it is allowed to keep. So the dynamics are different.

Could we expect his administration to help relax the repression that has stifled opposition and civil rights, especially since the 2009 "Green Revolution"?

Rowhani did not dwell that much on repression. He did promise improvement in the overall cultural atmosphere and a less intrusive government. That will be a test of his authority, whether he can ease repression a bit.

What are the real powers of Iran's president and how they are checked by the supreme leader and other bodies?

The office of presidency is clearly subordinate to that of the Supreme Leader. However, it is not irrelevant either. The president controls many of the ministries, budgets and some of the patronage networks. Thus, he can be an important player on the scene.

How should Washington respond to this electoral result?

This is an Iranian affair and it will take time for them to sort out their priorities. Best to do as little as possible.