First of all it is the supreme leader Chameini who can be happy. The entire system of the Islamic republic displayed flexibility. Not only does the high turnout express political strength but the same holds for allowing a figure into the presidency which does not directly belong to the dominant faction. If there wasn’t the reports of Chameini having lent support to the conservative candidates (who scored all together less votes than Rohani), one would think that Chameini invented and created Rohani. For several reasons his presidency helps to resolve several problems:
The system softly and smoothly gets rid of the worn-out and disgraced president Ahmedinejad who during his ascent had attracted the lower classes to the system and still maintains some following. At the same time the deep rift is bridged which had run trough the country (affecting even the establishment) since the crushing of the Green movement – without backing down by the supreme leader. Thirdly, the conflict with the west can be cushioned. In order to rally the majority behind the regime and against the west it is necessary that the aggression is being reasonable attributable to Washington & Co and not fuelled and amplified by Iran’s own provocations. Only few continued to be ready to pay the price for Ahmedinejad’s rhetoric attacks. Rohani taking office will lead to a temporary stabilisation of the system and its centre which already had appeared quite isolated due to inner conflicts and economic distress.
The Greens and the reform ayatollahs
For the defeated Green movement Rohani’s success might come as a late and partial rehabilitation. They can interpret it as the maximum possible under conditions of realpolitik. Some will not be happy with this and try to again push ahead. Sooner or later the new president will need to respond and reveal his limits.
Rohani enjoyed the support of the reform ayatollahs including the presidential hopeful of the last elections, Moussavi, the former president Khatami as well as the veteran cleric and big capitalist Rafsanjani, who this time was excluded from running. For all of them Rohani might serve as a good compromise as he will defend their interests without automatically creating conflict with the supreme leader Chameini. They certainly prefer this way to a new Green movement which eventually calls into questions the entire foundations of the Islamic republic. The danger emanating from such a scenario, given also the Arab rebellions and their complications, is epitomized by the fact that Moussavi remains under house detention. It will be a token if Rohani succeeds in restoring his right to move. But nothing is sure.
Ahead of the elections the western corporate media was sceptical. Their aim was to continue the campaign against one of their favourite enemies. They did not care so much about the single contenders. But as soon as the surprising news arrived from Tehran the mood changed and Rohani has been welcome. Washington’s Iranian policy is stuck in a blind alley and there seems to be no way out. There is the huge question of the nuclear dossier which implicitly engulfs the entire global setup and US supremacy. Israel strategically presses for a military strike. Washington, however, is aware that it is difficult or on the long run impossible to win. The attempted regime change can backfire and turn things even worse. Now they can point to Rohani and the need to wait without snubbing their closest ally. (This is why Tel Aviv is so uneasy.) Then, there is the Syrian problem. Eventually Obama recognized that the only possible solution will be a negotiated settlement based on a difficult power-sharing. This does actually not contradict arms supply and intervention by regional proxies or allies. Washington also knows that in one form or another Tehran needs to be included on the table. In this context the new Iranian president comes at the right time also for the west.
One cannot please everybody
Such ubiquitous happiness is a rare event and it therefore will also evaporate soon. The contradictions amid Rohani is situated are too deep and too explosive to allow him to remain above them. There is the demand for democracy in general as well as for cultural liberties for the urban middle classes similar to Turkey and the Arab world. The country is strangled by a crippling embargo and the question of social justice remains acute. Let alone the regional conflagrations and its unprecedented loading with sectarianism.
It can be expected is that the new president will cautiously try to continue on Khatami’s line: Tacit tolerance, more cultural liberties and political spaces. Less provocation towards the west and an attempt for a diplomatic détente without giving in on the nuclear rights. All that might generate enough consensus to embark on a more neo-liberal line in the economic camp. But these are only intuitions, suggestions and we should not forget that such a program already failed once.
Repeating a cycle?
On the other hand one thing seems difficult to imagine despite the changes circumstances: Can Rohani simply continue where Khatami ended? Khatami failed, he suffered an outright defeat. Let’s recall the cycle of crisis: after the hardening stemming from the war a majority expected relaxing changes similar to those projected on Rohani today. But Khatami neither succeeded in ameliorating the social conditions of the broad masses nor did his dialogue of cultures take off. On the other side of the Atlantic Bush had waged his clash of civilizations mainly targeting Islam. For the establishment of the Islamic republic liberalization went too far evoking unwanted spirits. Ahmadinejad therefore arrived at the right time. Without him Chameini could not have gotten rid of Khatami so easily – already by that time the danger of what later should become the Green movement was already there. Ahmedinejad mobilized the poor and downtrodden. He did this on a culturally conservative base which pleased the establishment. But he employed anti-clerical undertones with traces of millennialism which later would evolve into a big irritation for the ruling elites.
On the bottom line it becomes clear that the core of the system based on the clergy and the bazar merchant class is too weak to rule on its own in a stable and smooth way. Since the end of the war mobilizations it has been in need of partners and allies on the fringe or outside the perimeter of the Vilayat-e Faqih (Chomeini’s instituted doctrine “Guardianship of the Jurist”) who, however, tend to put the whole system into question.
Thus the new president’s general popularity might at a certain point turn into impotence and hopelessness – as it had arrived to his predecessors.