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Rohani’s Presidential Pulpit

Can the incoming Iranian president outmaneuver his country’s hardliners on foreign affairs? Will that enhance global governance?

June 20, 2013

Iran's President-elect Hassan Rohani (Credit: Mojtaba Salimi - Wikimedia)

Any Iranian president is limited in his capacity to enact reforms. Why? Because all policies are ultimately approved or denied by the country’s religious authorities.

But the presidential bully pulpit is still more powerful than it seems at first glance.

Outgoing conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, no matter how powerless he became at home, proved that a determined Iranian president could still make a splash on the world stage.

While policy is under the purview of the theocrats in Tehran, the power of words, when wielded by a compelling orator, can still outmaneuver the nominal boundary lines of power.

Ahmadinejad was an incompetent leader domestically and given to wildly overblown rhetoric worldwide, but he made a lasting impression. He became the embodiment of the boogeyman that Iran’s biggest enemies had long warned of.

Words have power. Regardless of Iran’s actual military capacities, infamous comments from the president like those about wiping Israel “off the map” were the gift that kept on giving for the Bomb-Iran-Now lobby in Jerusalem and Washington throughout his eight years in office.

In fact, such comments were one reason Ahmadinejad became persona non grata at home with the true power center of the regime. His over-reaching threats went beyond the ruling clerics’ wishes and backed Iran into a corner.

While bombs did not rain down, economic sanctions did. Ahmadinejad was defeating Iran’s regime himself.

These sanctions have brought the Iranian economy to a breaking point.

This has severely undermined the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic in the eyes of its citizens and helped strengthen the reform movement that put Hassan Rohani over the top in this month’s election.

There’s a key disjunction between the reality and Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric, of course.

The bravado of Iran’s president painted the nation as a constant, existential threat to its Arab neighbors, to Israel, to southern Europe and even to Iran’s own friends — regardless of real capacity.

We don’t know for sure how close Iran is to being able to make and deploy a nuclear weapon, but for nearly eight years, the advocates of bombing Iran have never really had to make this case. They merely had to point to the fighting words of Iran’s own president.

Clearly, since Iran still doesn’t have the bomb now, it’s not as if Tel Aviv had been just weeks away from a mushroom cloud, say, five years ago. But one would have thought so between the Israeli and U.S. hawks and Ahmadinejad’s bluster.

Which brings us to Iran’s next president, Hassan Rohani.

Aside from his reform leanings on the home front, which may never come to pass, he’s best known for being Iran’s top nuclear program negotiator in the reform administration of Mohammad Khatami.

In that role, he was generally seen as far more conciliatory than the string of negotiators who followed under the Ahmadinejad administration — and certainly more so than the outgoing president himself.

The Iranian people and the hard-line theocrats alike support nuclear development as a matter of sovereignty and independence from Western interference.

But they also recognize that belligerency on the issue has brought only misery and the constant risk of attack.

Now would be a good time for a conciliatory approach and a fresh start in nuclear talks with the West.

Hassan Rohani seems to be the man for the job of resetting Iran’s foreign image and stance.

He can thread the high-stakes needle of being diplomatic and open to compromise while also standing firmly (but not aggressively) behind a civilian nuclear development program.

Rhetoric paired with reality is strongest, but rhetoric alone, even separated from reality, can be powerful too — especially if people still believe the two are linked.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s globetrotting, Holocaust-denying, nihilist ranting proved that. Ayatollah Khamenei and the Guardian Council could keep him away from real power at home, but they could never shut him up on the world stage.

Toward the end of his administration, he likely didn’t even have control over any actual strategic or tactical military decisions or other real foreign policy.

The Revolutionary Guard Corps, allied to the Supreme Leader and not the president, saw to that.

But to Iran’s enemies, whatever propaganda came from the president’s lips could be spun as accurate representations of Iran’s plans and capabilities beyond its borders.

This was a particularly easy sell given the murkiness of Iran’s inner workings for non-expert Americans watching Sunday morning news panels on TV.

If Rohani wants to have a big impact as Iran’s president, his best bet is to use the power of rhetoric to re-shape Iran’s global and regional posture. In doing so, he could ease the pressure of sanctions and spare Iran from war. That’s where he can make a big difference.

If a disempowered fanatical blowhard can, with the power of his speeches alone, make Iran appear to be an imminent horseman of the nuclear apocalypse, then a disempowered reformist who wants reconciliation with the West can use friendlier rhetoric to climb Iran back down off the ledge.

In a mosque, the minbar, or pulpit, is generally designed to raise the visibility of the person speaking and naturally amplify his voice for the audience.

Hassan Rohani may never have full policy control over Iran’s international affairs and he will very likely have little policy control at home, but he still has the power of the presidential bully pulpit if he chooses to use it.

Like a minbar, the Iranian presidency raises the holder’s profile and amplifies his message, even if it might have no other inherent authority.

What is done with that limited, but real, rhetorical power is up to the man in office and how good he is with words.

But seizing the metaphorical presidential pulpit to reset diplomatic relations — with or without the Supreme Leader — would be a fitting result from the only candidate in this year’s field who was actually also a cleric and knows his way around a real pulpit.