By Karl Reiner
Taking office in August, Hassan Rowhani becomes Iran's new president at the age of 64. The former nuclear negotiator got over 51% of the vote in a race with five other candidates. He received 18.6 million votes. About 75% of eligible voters went to the polls. Rowhani won because Iran's reformist groups considered him the best candidate available.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his hardliners control key aspects of Iran's political system. Despite their efforts to put a conservative into the president's job, the race was won by the most moderate of the approved candidates. Rowhani, a member of two of Iran's top governing bodies, is experienced in economics and social issues. While he has an Iranian revolutionary's suspicion of the West, Rowhani does not value ideology and resistance over pragmatism and results.
The supreme leader has fallen out with current President Ahmadinejad, a man known for his wild-eyed posturing and heated rhetoric. Inflation in Iran is running around 45% per year, unemployment has climbed to over 20%. Oil income has plunged due to international sanctions. Everyone in the country has been affected except the ruling elite and Revolutionary Guards.
When he took office, Ahmadinejad fired a large number of experienced ambassadors and foreign policy experts, replacing them with inexperienced ideologues. Unlike much of Iran's leadership, Rowhani values expertise and has a broader view of the world. He has been willing to consider the risks and rewards of peacemaking.
Iran is locked in a nuclear policy confrontation with the West. Along with Russia and Hezbollah, Iran supports the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. Units of Iran's Revolutionary Guards and other regular troops are fighting alongside Assad's forces. The support from Hezbollah, Iran and Iraqi Shiites is helping to turn the tide in Assad's favor. Iran views Syria as a vital partner in the regional power struggle that has been going on since the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
The growing civil war in Syria is aggravated by the Shiite-Sunni split in Islam. Russia and Syria have ties dating back to the Cold War. Loath to abandon an old ally, Russia has called for a peace conference in Geneva to negotiate a peace settlement. The commander of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, says they are going to beat down Assad's opponents and stay in Syria for as long as it takes.
The civil war has cost 93,000 lives. The Syrian rebels, a mixed bag rife with Islamist and al-Qaeda contingints, are hindered by a lack of heavy weapons. Despite calls for providing weapons and establishing no-fly zones, the American public is leery of anything leading to involvement. With the European Union and U.S. lifting the weapons embargo, the scope of the conflict will move into a new phase.
The United States lacks good options. It has provided $510 million in humanitarian assistance and $250 million in support of the Syrian opposition. The United Nations has made an appeal for $5.2 billion in Syrian assistance. The fighting has displaced 4.2 million Syrians inside the country. Another 1.6 million are refugees in neighboring states.
In 2009, Iran's leaders snubbed President Obama's offer to reach out because they haughtily assumed he was no different than previous administrations. Rowhani has limited job flexibility because Iran's president is subservient to the supreme leader. What he can accomplish remains to be seen. Iran is being crimped by sanctions while engaged in a widening conflict in Syria. it is beset by economic problems, many of them brought on by the mismanagement of the current leadership.
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