The 686 men who expressed their desire to run in Iran's presidential election were whittled down to 8 -- not by primaries, debates and polls, but by the six theologians and six jurists on the Guardian Council. The candidates had to be Iranian-born, over 21, and believe in "God, Islam and the Iranian Constitution." Education, military service and "public service" were also taken into account by the Council. So while in the West much has been made of the differences among them, similarities rule.
Nevertheless, the Iranian people used their franchise to vote for the man on the ballot most opposed by the Mullahs. They made their statement in overwhelming numbers, proving the existence of the much-sought-after "Iranian moderates." That is the good news. The other good news is that they learned from Egyptian moderates, who lost by splitting votes among a selection of secular candidates. Anti-clerical Iranians coalesced around a single candidate, Hassan Rouhani, and Mohammad Reza Aref bowed out to enhance Rouhani's chances. The bad news is that the Iranian people have little influence, and neither will Rouhani, on the three major power centers in Iran:
- The Supreme Leader's religious leadership base
- The Basij paramilitary militia established by the Ayatollah Khomeini
- Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (the IRGC or Pasdaran)
The Iranian people also will not be able to determine the policy direction on international issues that concern the United States, Israel and much of the rest of the world, such as:
- Iran's aspiration to nuclear weapons capability
- Support for international terrorism against Israel and the West
- The quest for Shi'ite supremacy in the Middle East and beyond.
The "reforms" Rouhani is likely to pursue will be to help the staggering Iranian economy, plagued by the effects of U.S.-led international sanctions, as well as massive corruption in the system. Since the sanctions are the result of Iranian decisions on their nuclear aspirations, and the corruption largely benefits the IRGC and the Basiji police, which are all untouchable, Rouhani's ability to have a real impact is minimal.
This leaves the United States in an uncomfortable position.
Wanting to show support for the Iranian people, and support for "reform" and "moderation," insofar as any are permitted by the real Iranian power centers, the U.S. declared its acceptance of the result, congratulating the people for their "courage in voting" and being "determined to make their voices heard, despite the limitations the ruling government imposed on the political process." There have already been calls to "strengthen" Rouhani, "strengthen" the moderates -- much like the calls to "strengthen" Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority -- on the assumption that American support will enable him to pursue an agenda more closely aligned with Western interests.
It won't. He can't.
On the other hand, as a former nuclear negotiator, Rouhani knows how to speak the language of the international community. He is said to favor a negotiated settlement with the West on nuclear issues, which means he will likely push for a return to the P5+1 talks or some other form of engagement. This will please those for whom talk equals progress. But since the outcome on the Iranian side is pre-determined by people who are not Rouhani, and Iran expects that it will have whatever nuclear capability it deems essential, more talks are both a delaying tactic while the centrifuges spin and a means to press the U.S. to lift economic sanctions.
The Obama administration will be torn between easing sanctions to "help" the Iranian people in whom he has invested rhetorical support, and continuing to hold fast to his determination that Iran will not achieve its nuclear goals. It does not help that the sanctions are having a punishing effect on the civilian economy, but were "too little, too late" to prevent the acquisition of nuclear-related technology by the regime.
The nuclear issue is the most potentially devastating threat to the West and to American allies, but Iran's support for Hezb'allah and the Assad government in Syria is clearly the most actually devastating. Iran's evident intention is to achieve hegemony across Syria and through Lebanon to the Mediterranean Sea, with consequences not only for Syria and Lebanon, but for Turkey, Jordan, Israel and the Kurdish minorities across the region. This is part of the larger Sunni-Shi'ite war to spread Islam and re-establish the Caliphate under the control or one side or the other. The U.S. cannot -- and apparently does not -- look lightly on an Iranian victory in Syria, having just agreed to arm the "Syrian rebels." To have swallowed its discomfort with the Sunni jihadists -- despite the sure knowledge that al Qaeda is part of the rebel front -- is an indication of just how worried the administration is about Iran.
Iranian activity in the Western hemisphere -- in Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua and Ecuador -- including arms sales, and overtures to China based on China's need for Iranian oil, is a third area the United States cannot ignore.
None of the American priorities for changes in Iranian behavior can be affected by Hassan Rouhani, but Rouhani, who knows for whom he works (and it is not the Iranian people), will try to use his negotiating skills to effect changes in American behavior toward Iran. Whoever wins in the bazaar will determine the future threat posed by Iran to the West.
Shoshana Bryen is Senior Director of The Jewish Policy Center.