WITH the election of Hojatoleslam Hassan Rowhani to the presidency, Iranians have made clear their desire for change at the top after eight years of conservative rule under the stewardship of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Though the Guardian Council had limited the field of contenders to six men adhering to varying degrees of conservatism, Mr Rowhani seemed closest to the reformist camp. Variously labelled as “reform-minded” and “moderate”, the president-elect had nevertheless won the backing of the reformists and so can perhaps be best described as a centrist with conservative leanings. Yet his election — Mr Rowhani beat his closest rival by a wide margin — is a clear message from Iranian voters in favour of increased reform and openness in the Islamic Republic. But Hassan Rowhani will have to move carefully, balancing the hopes of his reformist and centrist supporters with the realities of having to work with the powerful players that make up the Iranian establishment.
Mr Rowhani is a man familiar with the Iranian political system. He has held key government posts in the past, including deputy speaker of parliament, while on the international front he has considerable diplomatic experience, having served as Iran’s main nuclear negotiator. The cleric-politician can also work to reduce Iran’s internal polarisation, which increased after Mr Ahmadinejad’s disputed 2009 election: he enjoys good relations with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei while his candidacy was backed by reformist former president Mohammad Khatami. To what extent the conservative clergy and the powerful military establishment let him pursue independent policies remains to be seen. What is certain at this point is that Mr Rowhani will have his plate full dealing with Iran’s numerous internal and external issues when he moves into the presidency in August. These include reviving a moribund national economy partly battered by Western nuclear sanctions, resolving the nuclear issue itself satisfactorily as well as carefully managing Iran’s foreign policy in a combustible neighbourhood at a time when sectarian tensions are on the boil and geopolitical uncertainty is rife.