Project: Middle East and North Africa Programme

Hossein Bastani, Political Analyst, BBC Persian Service

This paper examines the power balance within the Iranian regime and how powerful President Hassan Rouhani really is within this unique political system.

Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Hassan Rouhani, Chairman of the Parliament of Iran Ali Larijani and Judiciary Chief Amoli Larijani pray after a meeting in Tehran. Photo by Leader.ir - Pool/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Hassan Rouhani, the chairman of the parliament, and the judiciary chief pray after a meeting in Tehran. Photo by Getty Images.
  • One of the key questions about the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme is how powerful President Hassan Rouhani really is within Iran’s unique political system, and whether he and his colleagues have the ability to implement an international nuclear agreement despite their powerful opponents. As the country’s chief nuclear negotiator in 2003–05, Rouhani agreed to suspend uranium enrichment and open nuclear facilities to International Atomic Energy Agency inspections, but Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, unhappy with the attitude of the Western powers towards Iran, halted the implementation of these arrangements.
  • Rouhani and his associates emphasize that their objective is the resolution of the economic, administrative and international crises arising from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s two presidential terms. In this context, they regard their highest priority as being the conclusion of an agreement with the international community over the nuclear dossier – which has been, in their view, the major source of Iran’s economic problems in the past few years.
  • However, the president is faced with opposition within the ranks of some of the most influential state institutions: the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and Basij volunteer militias, the intelligence-security apparatus, the judiciary and the parliament.
  • There is no doubt that Ayatollah Khamenei expects Rouhani to strive to achieve the removal of the sanctions against Iran, but he does not seem interested in sharing responsibility for any retreat from the nuclear programme. If he comes to the conclusion that the political costs of nuclear talks far outweigh the economic benefits they can bring, he will once again put an end to them.
  • Should that happen, it will strengthen Ayatollah Khamenei’s convictions about the dangers of any rapprochement with the West and about the potential for moderation in foreign policy. This impact could be even stronger than that of the failure of the 2003–05 nuclear talks.
  • Ultimately, if those in Iran – such as President Rouhani – who favour interaction with the international community again fail in their efforts to strike a face-saving deal, they will never be able to return to the sphere of foreign policy in Iran. The departure of Rouhani’s team from the political scene during the most sensitive stage of the nuclear issue would lead to the return to Iran’s foreign policy apparatus of forces that oppose external engagement.