Iran held a presidential election last weekend to replace outgoing incumbent Mahmoud Ahmedinajad. Here Ian Bremmer explains why this is not all that dramatic a change. Basically, as I explained to people several years when all the excitement began over Iran's nuclear potential and Ahmedinajad, the presidency is largely a ceremonial position in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The real power is invested in the Supreme Leader. There have only been two so far in the Republic's history: founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his handpicked successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
In the presidential elections the Supreme Leader and his cronies on the leadership council first vet the candidates and eliminate all who are considered not reliable enough. Imagine in the United States if first Ronald Reagan and then Dick Cheney determined who could run as presidential candidates in the Republican primaries and there were no Democratic Party. That is what Iran is like!
The election winner and new president is Hassan Rouhani, an establishment figure who previously served as Iran's representative in nuclear talks. Hooman Majd, an Iranian-American Iran specialist, argues that those who voted for him will limit his actions. But much the same thing was argued by some after Mohammed Khatimi, a librarian who was relatively "liberal," was elected president in 1997. Large students protests shook Iran during his reign and he was followed by hardline populist Ahmedinajad. I see Rouhani as somewhere in between former Presidents Khatami and Ali Akbar Rashid Rafsanjani. He is not as well connected or as corrupt as Rafsanjani, but better connected and less liberal than Khatami. Here is another argument on why his election will make no difference.
There is one possible scenario in which he could be an influential figure. If Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei dies while Rouhani is president, his opinion could be of some influence in choosing Khamenei's successor. This is much the same level of influence that presidents have in parliamentary republics like Italy or Israel. There the presidency is basically a reward for politicians who have rendered faithful service to the nominating party and have either finished their political career or peaked in it.
Rouhani could also influence Khamenei to adopt a nuclear policy that is ambiguous enough to diffuse the contest with the West but still keep open the possibility of Iran developing nuclear weapons through highly enriched uranium in the future. In this sense he is potentially much more dangerous than Ahmedinajad. Meanwhile Iran continues to back Syria and order its Hezbollah offspring to fight on the side of the Ba'athist regime in Syria's very bloody civil war. Iran is still continuing its 34-year quest to empower Shi'ites in the Middle East through revolution and terrorism.