The start of Hassan Rouhani's second term as president signals the extension of Iran's moderate direction. But how much power does he have? DW talks to Iran expert Adnan Tabatabai.
DW: Iran's political system is complicated. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is the supreme leader for life, and he approves all policy. However, the president changes every four years. What can the president really do?
Adnan Tabatabai: It's important here to differentiate between political decision-makers and political shapers. The leader of the revolution, the religious leader, has ultimate decision-making authority along with an advising council. There are, however, a number of other councils in the Islamic Republic where policy is shaped. Some are elected - for example parliament, the Council of Experts, and city and municipal councils. Others are comprised of the elite, like the Guardian Council, the assessment council, also known as the Expediency Discernment Council, and the Supreme National Security Council. The better connected a president is with these councils, the more influence he can have on the shaping of policy.
The revolutionary leader is a cornerstone for important questions. How these questions are answered is up to the government. The nuclear agreement is a good example. Khamenei set the overall conditions for such an agreement. The specific steps and how the deal was designed, however, was up to the government with the president in the lead.
President Hassan Rouhani promised his followers a great deal four years ago. He called for a release of political prisoners, the creation of a bill of rights, more freedom of expression and equality for women. He was unable to do much of this in his first term. What concrete changes did he make?
In my view, the most important change during the Rouhani government is in trends, and we should differentiate between the status of change and the trend towards change. Political participation is just one example: Women are seriously underrepresented. However, the trend since Rouhani's term has been more women in parliament and the cabinet. The same with ethnic minorities: For the first time there are Kurdish Iranians as members of parliament and a Sunni vice minister.
The number of executions is particularly terrifying, but it is also trending positive given a change to the law that removes drug convicts, who comprise two-thirds of all death sentences, from death row. That would amount to about 4,000 stayed executions, should the law come into force. The death penalty has not been abolished, but the number of executions has been drastically reduced. Overall, the government has to invest more political will on these issues to counter conservative hardliners. It is a long process that would surely be part of a second term for Rohani.
Which power centers could Rohani expect support from, if he were reelected?
For this question, we have to look to Rohani's cabinet. It is important to understand that not every president has a renowned cabinet appreciated at both the state and public level, like Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh, Minister of Industries and Business Mohammad Reza Nematzadeh, or Finance Minister Ali Tayebnia. Rohani is recognized in these areas for being able to assemble a cabinet of such a high caliber.
The supreme leader, along with the military and national security leadership, certainly supports Rouhani's reelection. Rouhani may continue squabbling with the judiciary and its head, Sadegh Larijani. The two have traded barbs over the misuse of funds. The conflict means social reforms will remain extremely difficult to move forward with.
In your book you write of theological and republican currents in Iran's political system. How strong is the republican current, and could it permanently change the system?
We can clearly see the demand for political participation. Most of the politically active put moderate forces into power as president in 2013, and into parliament and the Council of Experts in 2016 - and they did this despite the traumatic aftermath of the 2009 protests. Their tireless efforts demonstrate how important republicanism is to average Iranians. They want to support and strengthen this republicanism in the face of the theological restrictions. Hopefully, outside observers and the Iranian diaspora in particular will more strongly value this effort.
I don't see a scenario that would alter the political system of the Islamic Republic. I do see a growing political accountability and responsiveness - the state's responsibility to its population - within the system thanks to a steady strengthening of elected institutions.
Adnan Tabatabai is co-founder and managing director of the CARPO research center in Bonn, Germany. He advises the EU, the German government and political nonprofit organizations on Iranian issues. Tabatabai is also a visiting lecturer at the University of Düsseldorf and author of the book, "Morgen in Iran" (Morning in Iran).
The interview was conducted by Shabnam von Hein.