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Is Rowhani a Threat to Iran's Clerical-Military Establishment?

June 26, 2013 by Michael Murphy

In honor of the Iranian people who once again were denied free and fair elections, the Freedom Collection blog is highlighting Iran this week. We have asked a number of leaders in the democracy promotion community to answer the following questions:

Where is Iran on its path toward liberalization? And is the demise of the clerical regime a necessary prerequisite for democratization?

We will be posting responses throughout the week.

On June 14 Iranians chose a popular “moderate” as president, leading to the question of whether the outcome is evidence that Iran is on a path toward liberalization.  Sayyid Hassan Rowhani, a mid-ranking cleric and PhD, trumped his five conservative competitors with an impressive first round victory, giving his supporters hope for more social freedoms, political openness, and a chance to strengthen the economy by reconfiguring Iran's relationship with the rest of the world. While he almost certainly would not have been the popular choice in a free and fair election, where any man or woman could run for office, he was more in line with most Iranians than the other seven candidates hand-picked by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. 

There is barely a mention of Rowhani without the phrase “reformist-backed” attached. The international media have wrapped the President-elect in the cloak of moderation. Even former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has used folksy superlatives to describe the avuncular Dr. Rowhani, suggesting that he is a nice guy who can alter Iran’s trajectory to be more in line with Western expectations, particularly on the nuclear issue. 

Lest we all get caught up in the frenzy of false hope, it might be wise to avoid too much hype about the results of this election, and accept them with significant caution and much lower expectations.

In the first place, Iran is still a theocracy.  The Islamic Republic is in its 33rd year, and despite crippling economic sanctions, shows no sign of fading away?  The clerical-military establishment remains solidly in place, and its influence was everywhere in this election, from vetting candidates who were assessed according to their loyalty to the Islamic Republic and Islam, to imposing massive restrictions both on the Internet and on domestic and foreign media coverage of the election, to mass arrests of activists and the detention of campaign workers. 

Khamenei warned the candidates not to put the nation ahead of Islam. Iran's current head of the nuclear negotiating team, Saeed Jalili, was a candidate in the election as well. Considered to be a close ally of the Supreme Leader, he was said to be the most anti-Western in the contest. Although he ran a distant third in the poll, he will continue as the Secretary to the Supreme National Security Council, unless, of course, the new President decides to spend political capital on trying to make a change.

For the foreseeable future, the new President will be preoccupied with the economy and will be very limited in his ability to influence foreign and nuclear policy, let alone implement sweeping political reforms.  So don't expect a liberal Iran anytime soon and don't expect western style democratization to sweep the clerical regime away. The opposite is closer to the truth – there will be no democratization until the mullahs are no longer calling the shots and the Iranian people can express their will in free and fair elections.

Michael Murphy is a special contributor to the Freedom Collection blog. Michael has been active in democracy promotion and international relations for the better part of four decades in Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa, and the Middle East. He is currently a consultant based in Ottawa.

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