With the election of reformist Hassan Rowhani, domestic and foreign spectators look to the new Iranian president for change. How far will the conservative leadership budge?
Iran's recent election results seem to signal a new direction for the country's foreign policy. After his unexpected victory, President-elect Hassan Rowhani spoke about the "victory of the masses over extremism." The election of the moderate cleric has not only sparked celebration amongst Iranians, but raised new hopes internationally in regard to the nuclear debate.
During his campaign Rowhani promised to appeal to the West about lifting international sanctions. This move is crucial in lieu of the country's dire economic crises.
Rowhani has a clear mandate and a great responsibility to the people of Iran - who placed their trust in him - as well to the world, said German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle in response to the election results. EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton signaled her interest in working with Rowhani to find a "quick diplomatic solution" to the nuclear dispute.
How much room for change?
Iranian experts are at odds as to whether such expectations from the West are realistic, according to Berlin-based journalist Bahman Nirumand. He predicts that Rowhani will encounter strong resistance, both internally and externally, when trying to implement his campaign promises.
These opposing forces consist primarily of religious leader Ayatollah Khamenei and the powerful Revolutionary Guard (Pasdaran), the Iranian parallel army. For the past eight years Khamenei and the Pasdaran have illustrated their unwillingness to compromise with the West on their nuclear stance.
Sadegh Zibakalam, a political scientist at the University of Tehran, has also warned against too much optimism. "We must not be blinded by this success," Zibakalam said in an interview with DW. "The important institutions of power are still in the hands of the conservatives. Nevertheless they have lost a piece of their power to the reformists."
Hardliners need someone like Rowhani
However, Mohammad Nourizad, a regime critic and filmmaker based in Tehran, believes that it's possible for Iran and the West to regain each other's trust when it comes to nuclear negotiations. To do so, Iran must open its doors for international nuclear inspections, which would require a certain degree of agreement between both the religious leaders and the new president.
Nourizad, who has been repeatedly imprisoned for his criticism of the government, is optimistic that nuclear talks will gain new traction thanks to Rowhani's election. "Ayatollah Khamenei and the leaders of the Pasdaran see themselves at a standstill through the increasing international isolation. Thus, they created the necessary conditions for someone like Rowhani to open new doors."
On the domestic playing field, the Iranian population can expect a reorientation to greater rights and freedoms as a result of Rowhani's election. Under the eight-year reign of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, not only has the economy suffered but the political and social climate had also become oppressive.
During his presidential campaign, Rowhani spoke for the release of political prisoners, who have been held captive since 2009. "Rowhani's power exists in the more than 18 million voices he received from the Iranians. They want change," said Nirumand.
The role of parliament
Domestically, Rowhani will have some options in redesigning the government. He may try to appoint key positions in the ministry and central institutions such as the Supreme National Security Council.
However, it could be problematic for the new president to establish the necessary cooperation with parliament. It is “firmly in the hands of the enemy, and it is feared that the supporters of the defeated hardliner (Saeed) Jalili will continue to act destructively,“ said Walter Posch, Iran expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
Ultimately, said Posch, the parliament will act in accordance to the religious leaders' interests, who "seem to have understood the will of the people, because otherwise Rowhani would not have been admitted."