By Golnaz Esfandiari , RFE/RL
Taking over the presidency in a country where decisions are ultimately made by the supreme leader is challenging enough. Having to begin that task by clearing colossal hurdles left by your predecessor is nearly mission impossible.
Immediately upon being sworn in as Iran's president at a public inauguration on August 4, Hassan Rohani must scale a mountain of challenges inherited from Mahmud Ahmadinejad's eight years in office, including an ailing economy, crippling international sanctions, troubled international relations, tricky nuclear negotiations, and an increasingly repressive and politically intolerant domestic atmosphere at home.
On his way to winning the presidency, Rohani pledged to tackle such big-ticket issues head on. But, in doing so, he risks suffering the same fate as his predecessors, whose aims conflicted with the conservative establishment and ultimately undermined their efforts to enact changes and implement their plans.
The 64-year-old Rohani is a veteran insider who's held a number of senior posts in the Islamic republic, but that does not guarantee him the continued trust and backing of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. One of Rohani's trickiest tasks will be finding a way to push his plans forward without antagonizing various centers of power who favor the status quo.
Khamenei's support is key if Rohani is to deliver on his campaign promises and successfully meet his challenges. None loom larger than the economy, which has suffered from years of mismanagement and international sanctions aimed at getting Iran to reverse its nuclear policy.
High Inflation, Unemployment
Addressing the Iranian parliament on July 14, just one month after his first-round presidential victory, Rohani revealed data that he said showed the country's economic situation was far worse than Ahmadinejad's administration had admitted.
For the first time since the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, he said, Iran's economy contracted for two consecutive years. Inflation had reached 42 percent, according to Rohani, and the unemployment rate -- which is currently officially listed at around 13 percent -- was expected to worsen, particularly among the country's youth.
The Iranian currency, the rial, has lost more than half of its value since last year, and international commerce has stalled due to trade sanctions and restrictions on banking transactions.
The country's greatest source of income, oil exports, have been cut by almost 40 percent as the result of an EU embargo. And these exports could suffer further should a new round of proposed U.S. sanctions that target countries who purchase Iranian oil clear Congress.
During his campaign, Rohani pledged to employ economic experts and skilled managers to reverse the economic decline.
Kamran Dadkhah, a U.S.-based professor of Middle Eastern economies, suggests that Rohani will need to take several steps to get his economy on the right track.
"What had gone away in the past eight years is thinking rationally, scientifically, and based on economic theory, economic knowledge, and economic science, to manage the economy," he says. "And I think the first thing he has to do [is] resurrect the Plan and Budget Organization (PBO) [which was dissolved by Ahmadinejad]. And he has to appoint a responsible person as the head of the Central Bank and order him to control liquidity, the money supply in the economy, so he can bring down inflation."
Most importantly, Rohani must find a way to ease or remove some of the sanctions affecting the economy.
"This is really fundamental, otherwise anything he is going to do domestically would be much more difficult and much more costly," Dadkhah says.
Rohani, a former nuclear negotiator, has skills at his disposal that earned him the nickname "the Diplomatic Sheikh."
To win concessions on the sanctions issue, Rohani would need to create international trust in Iran's nuclear program while convincing Khamenei that reaching a compromise with the West is in Iran's interest.
Iran observers have interpreted Rohani's reported choice as foreign minister as a strong signal of his interest in serious negotiations with the West. Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran's former representative to the United Nations, has a reputation for pragmatism and a willingness to negotiate.
But Rohani faces a long road ahead, according to Mehrzad Boroujerdi, an expert on Iran and a professor of political science at Syracuse University.
"Even if the nuclear issue is resolved, say tomorrow -- which is impossible -- the impact of the sanctions on Iran's economy will not go away quickly," he says. "Therefore, I expect the economic crisis to continue, although we could see some improvements. For example, the national currency could strengthen."
Meanwhile, Rohani will also be expected to live up to campaign promises he made to provide more freedoms to the Iranian people.
In recent weeks, different groups including Internet activists, journalists, and women's rights advocates have let Rohani know their demands, including an end to censorship and discrimination as well as the release of political prisoners.
Meeting some of those demands, however, could put Rohani on a crash course with hard-liners.
Rohani's pledge to release opposition leaders Mir Hossein Musavi and Mehdi Karrubi, who have been under house arrest since February 2011, can only be accomplished with Khamenei's approval.
Some observers believe Khamenei may be softening his position on the matter, citing his July 28 comments in which he said that those who claimed fraud in the 2009 presidential election should apologize.
But Toronto-based Iranian journalist Shahram Rafizadeh predicts that Rohani's hands will be tied in the short term.
"I don't think Rohani can, for now, deliver promises such as ending the house arrest of Musavi and Karrubi [due to opposition from hard-liners]," Rafizadeh says. "He could, to some extent, improve the situation of the press or culture, and also social issues through direct negotiation with the head of the judiciary, or the police chief and [other officials], but it doesn't seem that the changes demanded from Rohani by the people will be achieved."
Professor Boroujerdi predicts a short honeymoon period for Rohani.
"After [the first few months] it should be expected that opposition forces will begin their criticism of Rohani's policies -- particularly those forces who were defeated in the presidential vote," he says.
Rohani has already gotten a glimpse of the difficulties of navigating Iran's political system.
In putting together his list of cabinet nominees, four were rejected by Khamenei, according to a report by the opposition "Sahamnews" website this week.
The report said that Rohani, keen to avoid tensions, complied by striking the four from his list.
Among them was former Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Commander Hossein Alaei, who last year criticized Khamenei in an open letter.
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