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Iran Policy Focus

Analysis: Q & A on prospect of change in Iran under Rouhani

Political analysis

Responding to Six Questions on prospect of change in Iran under Rouhani


Since the outcome of the presidential election in Iran a new discussion has once again emerged in the Western Capitals, among the policy makers, foreign policy and national security experts. The core of the discussion is whether the new so called "moderate" president, Hassan Rouhani, would change the clerical regime's principal policies both domestically and internationally and what should be the Western approach. In his first press conference after his inauguration he sent mix messages. Time and again he reiterated desire for "negotiation" and "interaction" but offered no substance suggesting genuine change. On the contrary he demanded the US to act first.


On the substance of the anticipated change of behavior from Tehran, a group of analysts and policy makers solely focus on nuclear issue, since they consider nuclear as the prime concern and the main threat to peace and security in the region and to their national security interests. The second group tends to expect the change of behavior in a wider scope of foreign policy and national security issues including support for terrorism. The third group, however, suggests that any change should include not only the foreign policy but also the domestic policy of the regime since they are both very much related.


While the discussion on this issue is no doubt a legitimate and appropriate, however, the whole approach seems to be misguided as it avoids the core issue and the dilemma facing the regime. The real questions that need to be answered are as follows: Is Rouhani truly a moderate? Where does he stand on major policy issues? Does he have the power to make the change even if he wants to do so? What are the benchmarks for the expected change? And finally, what would be the outcome if there were genuine attempts for change?

As will be explained in more details, all indications are that Rouhani is not a moderate, does not have the power to make a fundamental change, his position on major policy issues are not much different or at least too vague to be relied on, the benchmarks should include real change in both foreign and domestic issues and finally, fundamental change risk the fall of the entire regime. In short, Western observers seem to miss the deadly impasse the regime is sunk in.


Queston 1: Is Rouhani a moderate?

No, he is not. There is no moderate within the clerical regime, unless there is a new definition for the word "moderate".   Rouhani is not a new face. He has been part of the establishment of the clerical regime for the past 34 years. He had been Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council for 16 years and remained Khamenei’s representative in the Council to date.

Among others he has held positions such as: Deputy Commander-in-chief of the  armed forces (1987-1988); Member of the Supreme Defense Council (1982-1988); Member of Central Council of War Logistics Headquarters (1982-1988); Commander-in-Chief of the Air Defence Forces (1985-1991); Head of Khatam al-Anbia IRGC Headquarters (1985-1987).

He was approved by the Guardian Council for the election as one who has proved his allegiance to the absolute rule of Supreme Leader (Khamenei) both in theory and practice, without which, according to the law, he would not have been able to stand as a candidate. Even Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of the pillars of the regime, failed this test.


Question 2: Where does he stand on major policy issues?

On nuclear issue he told Arabic daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat on June 15, 2013, “Iran’s nuclear program is entirely a peaceful one. Therefore, it is not in violation of international law and there is no room for any discussion on this issue.” In his first press conference after inauguration while declaring readiness for more negotiation he stressed that" we should know that Iran's peaceful nuclear program is a national and bipartisan issue and there are certain principles which shall be maintained. This means this government will stress Iran's nuclear right in accordance to international law," adding " Unlawful and unreasonable demands which their use have already been expired will get to nowhere.

According to New York Times " Mr. Rouhani said Americans needed to take the first step in the stalled nuclear negotiations, and he would not specify what his country would be prepared to do, if anything, to make those negotiations advance. While the tone of Mr. Rouhani’s remarks appeared more accommodating than that of his predecessor, he broke no new ground on Iran’s position regarding the nuclear dispute, the most serious international issue confronting the country."

He has already publicly acknowledged that when he led the negotiation on nuclear "how Teheran played for time and tried to dupe the West after its secret nuclear programme was uncovered by the Iranian opposition in 2002.” More recently he also acknowledged that he acted under the instruction of Khamenei and in fear of a confrontation given the then political environment.

On Syria, in the interview with the Arabic daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat he praised regime’s alliance with Syria by saying “...There are facts that cannot be ignored. Syria is the only country in the region which had resisted the expansionist policies and conducts of Israel."  Associated press also reported on July 16, 2013, "Iran's president-elect has sent messages to Syria's Bashar Assad and Lebanon's militant Hezbollah group, reaffirming support for the two allies. He was quoted as saying, "close Iranian-Syrian ties will be able to confront 'enemies in the region, especially the Zionist regime,' or Israel. Rouhani says Syria will 'overcome its current crisis'."

During the rally on Quds day he repeated Ahmadinejad call  that “Israel has been a wound in the body of Islam for years and that wound must be eliminated.”


Qustion 3: Does he have the power to change regime's policies?

No, even if he was a moderate, who is not, and even if he had reached the conclusion that change is the only option left for the regime, he would not be able to make any fundamental changes in both domestic and foreign policy grounds.

The absolute power in the clerical regime is vested on the Supreme Leader. In another word, this is a religious dictatorship based on the principle of Velaya-e Faqih (absolute rule of clergy now led by Khamenei). According to Article 110 of the Constitution, the Supreme Leader holds absolute power in all principal issues. They include among others:

  • Delineation of the general policies of the Islamic Republic of Iran after consultation with the Nation's Exigency Council.
  • Issuing decrees for national referenda.
  • Assuming supreme command of the Armed Forces.
  • Declaration of war and peace and the mobilization of the Armed Forces.
  • Appointment, dismissal, and resignation of:

o   the religious men on the Guardian Council,

o   the supreme judicial authority of the country,

o   the head of the radio and television network of the Islamic Republic of Iran,
the chief of the joint staff,

o   the chief commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, and

o   the supreme commanders of the Armed Forces.

  • Signing the decree formalizing the election of the President of the Republic by the people.

In practical terms, as acknowledge by Rouhani and also very recently by Ahmadinejad, all decisions regarding nuclear program are made by Khamenei. When Ahmadinejad wanted to change his Minister of Intelligence and Security Khamenei said no and despite initial protest by Ahmadinejad, he had to submit.

On July 29, 2013, the Iranian website Saham News reported that Khamenei rejected four of Rouhani's nominees for ministries of Defense; Intelligence and Security; Science, research and Technology; and Islamic Guidance. According to the website "instructions of the Leader was accepted by Mr. Rouhani."


Question 4: What are the benchmarks for change in Iran?

The benchmarks should be both on domestic as well as foreign policy to mark a real change in the behaviour and the policies of the regime.

On the domestic front it is vital to recognize the right of the Iranian people to express their views and to protest. All political prisoners including those affiliated with the opposition such as the MEK must be released immediately. Political parties, not limited to internal factions of the regime, must be free to operate. Practical measures are needed to rein in the suppressive apparatus including the MOIS, Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Revolutionary courts etc. Practical steps are needed to change the monopoly of  IRGC and a few other foundations on the economy.

On the foreign policy front, the regime must halt without delay its nuclear activities in accordance with the UN Security Council resolutions. Tehran should also end its participation in the war against Syrian people. The regime should also end its meddling in Iraq and support for terrorist groups in the region including the Hezbollah.


Question 5: What would be the outcome if there were to be an attempt for policy change?

The regime is currently engulfed by deep economic crisis, coupled with growing popular discontent and bickering for power at the highest level of the regime.  Khamenei, although remains the most powerful man in the clerical regime, but has lost his clout as the arbitrator among different factions.  He opposes any change of policy. Therefore, any attempt to change, inevitably requires standing up to Khamenei.

On the other hand the clerical regime is based on the notion of the absolute rule of the Supreme Leader. Therefore, any deviation from this principle or undermining the Supreme Leader, further destabilizes the entire regime and confront it with more domestic complications, and thus making the regime more vulnerable.  This is the core of the deadly impasse the regime is facing and Rouhani's dilemma. Their fear is that any attempt to real change risk leading to  the disintegration and thus downfall of the entire regime.

While Khamenei has become weaker and the rival faction has gain some momentum hoping to get their share of power within the system, but the most important outcome of recent developments is that the entire regime has become more vulnerable and the most likely outcome would be further fissure at the highest level of the clerical regime. Nothing is more dangerous for a totalitarian system than internal power struggle and rift at the top, which would inevitably lead to demoralization of the regime's forces, more internal disaffection, as well as losing the grip on the society and thus triggering the outburst of the population for regime change. This is the nightmare scenario for the regime.


Question 6: What would be the right policy on Iran?

The most damaging policy is to continue with the long held illusion that there are some moderates within the clerical regime that if enough incentives are offered to them, they may have a change of heart and put an end to their destructive policies. Policy on Iran should be based on facts and 34 years of experience in dealing with the mullahs.

Making more concessions and giving more time to the mullahs' regime is a recipe for disaster. It would be to the detriment of the Iranian people and any desire to prevent the regime from obtaining nuclear bomb, since it would help the regime get off the hook.

Now that the regime is more vulnerable it is time to put an end to years of concession making and hold the regime accountable and demand clear action rather than more talks and more negotiations. Now is time to step up sanctions and also intensify political pressures, among others, by opening up to the opposition as such move would send the right message to Tehran that they have to act and not talk.

There should opening up to the opposition that the regime fears most. Political recognition of the MEK and NCRI as the leading opposition force to the clerical regime will send the strongest message to mullahs. In July 1988 Khomeini accepted the ceasefire and in his word “took the chalice of poison”, only after the MEK’s successful military operation in June of that year and the fear that the continuation of that trend would soon lead to the regime's overthrow.

This is the only option to avoid either a fundamentalist regime obtaining nuclear bomb and its devastating consequences or to be forced to use military means to stop it from acquiring nuclear bomb.



Change in Iran is inevitable. The clerical regime has already utilized all its resources and capacity and is faced with a deadly crisis. Now is time to maximise the pressure on the regime. Any other policy would be tantamount to helping the regime to survive.  The real change will not come from within the clerical regime but rather by the Iranian people and the opposition seeking regime change. Now is the moment of truth for the Western governments to either stand with the Iranian people and their desire for regime change or to fall in the trap of more negotiations letting the regime off the hook at the time it is more vulnerable.

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