Nadine Elali

Are times a changing?

Will Rowhani’s election change Iran's policy on Syria and Hezbollah?

Khamenei and Rowhani

Rowhani’s election has given a new and cautious hope in the region. Indeed, his election was welcomed by Arab Gulf countries who see in Rowhani, as Khatami before him, an administration perhaps more open to the world. Although experts argue that Iran’s presidents rarely have a say in the country’s foreign policy, thus eliminating any hope for change of policy toward Hezbollah and Syria, others argue otherwise. They beleive that the Iranian people, more than before, have a say in what is Iran’s best interest – and if proven a liability, the republic’s support for Hezbollah and Syria may decrease.   


Tehran has been Hezbollah's strongest backer both financially and militarily for over 30 years, and Iran recently has thrown its weight behind Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime. Iranian fighters along with Hezbollah have recently been reported to be fighting alongside the Syrian army and militias loyal to Assad.


Rowhani’s election as Iran’s new reformist president has raised hopes of increased engagement with other nations, but the regime’s continued support for both Hezbollah and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad remains a major point of contention.


During a briefing on the results of the June 14 elections at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., Iranian-Israeli Middle East analyst, Meir Javedanfar, explains that foreign policy issues are generally managed by the Supreme Leader. Rowhani’s coming to power therefore should not be expected to alter Iran’s policy toward either Hezbollah or Syria, especially as both are considered important geostrategic interests for reformists and conservatives alike.


“Rowhani was appointed previously by Khomeini to manage the Iran-Iraq war and [he was] also appointed to the Security Council from 1999 to 2005. So, it is only logical to assume that the president has good relations with Hezbollah,” says Javedanfar.


“Given Iran’s current situation (i.e. the isolation and sanctions), I not only believe [Tehran] will maintain this relation but also increase it,” says Javedanfar. “But unlike Ahmadinejad, Rowhani is expected to adopt a more nuanced public strategy, where support for Hezbollah will not be trumpeted – but kept behind closed doors [so as] not to antagonize other neighboring countries.”


The recent intervention on Assad’s behalf by both Iran and Hezbollah has escalated tension in the region – it has also further widened the rift between Sunni Gulf nations and Iran. A few days before the election, however, Mr. Hassan Rowhani told Asharq Al-Awsat, the London-based pan-Arab newspaper, that forging better relations with neighbors would be one of his top priorities. Following his election, Gulf and Arab monarchies (including Saudi Arabia) appeared quick to congratulate Rowhani, thus indicating their readiness for reconciliation.


Lebanese analyst Qassem Qassir tells NOW that Iranian reformists are known for their moderate rhetoric and position toward regional and international policies. Iran's last reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, visited Riyadh while in office from 1997 to 2005 and he was able to mend ties.


Rowhani’s rhetoric, Qassir says, can therefore be expected to have a positive effect on improving relations both with Arab and international countries – thus lessening the current tension over Iran and Hezbollah’s interference in Syria. “Hezbollah,” he says, “will ultimately benefit from this.”


“When Khatami won the elections against Nouri, the result was conceived as a blow to Hezbollah’s interest, but Iran’s relation with Lebanon was developed on a diplomatic, economic, and cultural level. There were common visits between ex-prime Minister Rafiq Hariri to Iran, and visits by Khatami to Lebanon. This did not have negative repercussions on Hezbollah – on the contrary, the party made the best of it,” says Qassir.  


According to Lebanese analyst and commentator Ali al-Amin, during Khatami’s tenure, conservatives were able to invest in positive diplomatic relations required to pursue their own agenda. Khatami ended his tenure incapable of achieving any of his goals over the two terms he ruled – but today, al-Amin says, times are changing.


“Rowhani winning from the first round is a message from the Iranian people – who today, given the recent development in the region (especially after the Arab Spring) are in a different position. They are saying that conservatives have brought Iran to its brink and are in no way capable of ruling the country anymore. They are objecting to the new world order that the previous regime has been boasting of, and of the regional alliances that have been costing the country as it faces its own financial crisis,” says al-Amin.


“The June 14 election can be viewed more like a survey to know what the Iranian people want, and Rowhani’s win is a clear warning to higher authorities [on the need] to cooperate. For the first time in history, during the campaign, there were no banners to indicate the candidate’s support for Hezbollah or Syria. This is an indicator that politicians are aware of the beat on the street, and that the people are fed up with policies that reflect negatively on their living conditions.”


“This is the message that Rowhani carries, a message that the regime can no longer turn a blind eye to the people's demands – and, for that reason, I believe that the regime will be cooperative,” al-Amin argued.  


Atieh International’s managing partner, Bijan Khajehpour, argues that Rowhani’s election has more to it than meets the eye. He explains that while some argue that the president has little say in foreign policy matters, most of the strategic decisions are made in various Iranian councils. This includes the Supreme National Security Council, which the president heads and therefore likely impacts decision-making bodies.


“The president, who will also be the chairman of the national security, will determine the secretary, the new ministers of foreign affairs, and more. Essentially, some of those [reformists] who were previously marginalized [during Ahmadinejad’s tenure] will come back to power. They will be able to suggest new ideas and challenge the recent narrative, especially whether it was worthwhile to support Hezbollah and Syria,” says Khajehpour.


Javedanfar notes that the conflict in Syria has in fact become a major liability for Iran. Considering the country’s own financial challenges as a result of sanctions, Rowhani could use the financial angle to leverage with the Supreme Leader for the need to reduce support to Bashar al-Assad.


“The support will continue, but how much of it can be altered depends on how much it is costing Iran to support Assad,” Javedanfar says.  

A handout picture released by the official website of the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (L), shows him meeting with the new president-elect, Hassan Rowhani (L), at his office in Tehran on June 16, 2013 (AFP photo).

"Syria has in fact become a major liability for Iran. Considering the country’s own financial challenges as a result of sanctions, Rowhani could use the financial angle to leverage with the Supreme Leader for the need to reduce support to Bashar al-Assad."