The unexpected victory of centrist candidate Hasan Rowhani in Iran’s presidential election last week signals a significant shift in Iranian politics. Rowhani began his campaign as a moderate who was unlikely to cause trouble for Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, or the conservative ruling elite. After the disqualification of former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and the decision by reformist candidate Mohammad Reza Aref to drop out of the race, however, the reformists and supporters of Rafsanjani rallied around Rowhani. As a result, large segments of the electorate came to see him as an alternative to the conservative candidates favored by the supreme leader.
It is expected that Rowhani’s strong victory will help improve Iran’s political environment and restore some of the limited civil and political rights Iranians enjoyed during the 1997-2005 presidency of Mohammad Khatami. Rowhani’s first order of business, however, is likely to be Iran’s current economic crisis. Economic conditions have deteriorated sharply in Iran since the middle of last year, with unemployment rising to 14 percent and inflation rates hitting record highs, between 30 percent and 40 percent annually. Iran’s currency lost more than 75 percent of its value during this interval.
These dire economic conditions are partly a result of the populist and often chaotic economic policies of outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and partly the result of the latest round of Western sanctions. Since mid-2012, the United States and the European Union have imposed new financial sanctions and successfully convinced many of Iran’s oil customers to either suspend or significantly reduce their imports of Iranian crude oil. As a result, Iran’s oil revenues have declined sharply, and Iran has had difficulty transferring the payments through international banks for the limited quantity of crude that it is still exporting.