Two days before he takes office, Iranian President-elect Hassan Rouhani remains something of a blank slate. A conservative who took up a portion of the reformists' cause during the campaign, Rouhani has yet to convince Iranians -- or Americans, for that matter -- of what kind of president he will be. The unveiling of his cabinet at the inauguration ceremony on August 4, therefore, will provide the first concrete indication of which way Iran is headed -- and how the moderate Rouhani will differ from former reformist President Mohammad Khatami and outgoing radical conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Above all else, Rouhani has presented himself as a moderate. During the campaign, he repeatedly emphasized "moderation" and "being a moderate," attractive phrases that resonate with many Iranians, as well as observers in the West who are fed up with eight years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But in Iran's highly polarized political environment -- split between conservatives and reformists, and increasingly between conservative groups who have serious internal disputes -- what Rouhani represents is both ambiguous and mysterious.
The haziness envelopes not only Washington, where diplomats are waiting to see how Rouhani's government will approach the nuclear standoff, but also Tehran, where hardliners and reformists are struggling to figure out which direction Rouhani plans to take the country and how he plans to implement his moderate policies -- both foreign and domestic.
Without a doubt, Rouhani owes reformists big time. With his strong roots among the traditional clerics in Iran, Rouhani initially had little chance of winning the presidential election. But the intervention of two former presidents, Mohammad Khatami and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, on Rouhani's behalf prompted the only reformist candidate in the race, Mohammad Reza Aref, to withdraw just days before the election and paved the way for his victory.
Rouhani also benefitted from his intensely conservative background and, in particular, his sudden turn to the center: His embrace of political rights and civil liberties on the one hand, and his promise to eliminate sanctions on the other, helped generate serious momentum in the race. Rouhani not only earned the votes of the urban middle class, he also got the votes of those suffering the most under the economic conditions of today's Iran. Many of these voters are deeply conservative.
Now that Rouhani will be president, both groups are demanding their share of his victory. The reformists -- who have all but vanished from Iran's political scene for the past eight years and whose two presidential candidates in the 2009 race, Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi, have been under house arrest for more than 1,000 days -- want Rouhani to follow through on his campaign promises. The conservatives, meanwhile, have their own demands and are seriously concerned that the reformists may claw their way back into power.
In the words of former Tehran Mayor Gholamhosein Karbaschi, who met with the president-elect in June, "[E]very faction considers Rouhani totally its own and wants to see all its own demands reflected in his [cabinet] choices." Rouhani, for his part, has attempted to appear disinterested, promising to engage both groups in his cabinet. As a result, Karbaschi said, Rouhani's final decision "can lead some to be dissatisfied about some of the choices." The question is whether his centrist approach can succeed.