Rowhani's Empty Victory

06.19.13 2:45 PM ET

The victory of Hassan Rowhani had little to do with him. Rowhani was elected because he was the least worst choice for a discontented Iranian electorate. He is inheriting a presidency with declining influence. To make matters worse, Rowhani is about to become the front man for an isolated regime and a ruined economy.

Iranians chose Rowhani as part of a pattern of protest votes against the Islamic regime. Within the extremely narrow confines of political discussion—the authorities allowed only 8 of 680 potential candidates to run—Iranians chose Rouhani because he least represented the regime. This pattern of defiantly voting against excessively loyalist candidates began in 1997, when Iranians backed Mohammad Khatami, the former national librarian (they reelected him in 2001). In 2005, Iranians faced a stark choice: between former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a murderous, self-enriching authoritarian, and a largely unknown religious conservative, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Iranians preferred the populist they did not know to the crook they did.

Similarly, in 2009 they opted for Mir-Hossein Moussavi, a regime insider who was willing to hint at possible changes. In what proved to be a tremendous error, the regime stole the election to keep Ahmadinejad in power, triggering months of unrest.

One of the benefits of the economic sanctions imposed on Iran is that the regime was too weak to risk a second rigged election. International sanctions have hit Iran’s exports, its banks, and its currency. The regime’s inept response and corruption have made sanctions devastatingly effective. Ordinary Iranians are struggling with runaway inflation. Meanwhile, regime insiders are exploiting Iran’s multiple exchange rates, buying dollars at the high official rate and then selling them for huge profits in the unofficial market.

In addition, changes in Iran’s political set up have made the presidency less relevant. The last president to have a real impact on policy was Rafsanjani (1989 to 1997). Since then, Ali Khamenei, Iran’s true head of state and the “Supreme Leader,” has curbed the presidency’s influence.

What matters now for Rowhani is whether he can get anything done within the straitjacket imposed by Khamenei. Rowhani faces two practical tests if he is to placate the Iranian public. First, can he exert any influence over important issues, such as economic policy? Can he get rid of the corrupt multiple exchange rate system and tame inflation? Second, is Rowhani willing to change direction? For example, can he release some of Iran’s high-profile political prisoners, such as the lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh?

It is appealing for outsiders to seek to strengthen Rowhani’s hand so that he can pass these tests. Catherine Ashton, the E.U.’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, has already succumbed to temptation, declaring that she is “firmly committed to working with the new Iranian leadership towards a swift diplomatic solution of the nuclear issue.”

The record shows that western attempts to play Iranian politics to strengthen the “moderates” have failed. Since 1992, the E.U. has pursued a “critical dialogue,” followed by a “comprehensive dialogue” with Iran—to no avail. Instead, after 21 years of talking, the E.U. now has harsher human rights sanctions on Iran than the U.S.

So instead of rushing to embrace Rowhani, a better approach is to sit back and see what happens. The Iranian regime knows the U.S. and E.U. position on the nuclear program, regional subversion, and human rights. Supreme Leader Khamenei and president-elect Rowhani understand what they have to do to obtain relief from sanctions.

The Iranian regime has not made these changes because it is willing to pay a far higher price to reach its nuclear goal than the West is willing to pay to stop it. The western failure to take meaningful action beyond sanctions also encourages the regime to be reckless in areas such as Syria and the Gulf. In these circumstances, Iran’s new president, a loyalist in a weak position, is unlikely to stick his neck out.