A New President of Iran (Part 2)

As noted in the first part of our overview of the recent presidential elections, power and influence in Iran depend on the interplay between the different sources of political legitimacy, the formal and informal institutions of the system, and the networks of connections in the society. Among the main sources of legitimacy are, on the “official” side, the relationship with the figure of the founding Leader and the 1979 Revolution, the appeal to the teaching of Islam, to velayat e-faqih, or to the  Constitution, and the religious or political stature of the person. On the “unofficial” side, one’s involvement with previous moments of popular revolt (eg. the Green Revolution of 2009), the relationship with the informal leaders of the “opposition” (Moussavi, Khatami), or with other “moderate” figures (Rafsanjani), are similarly relevant.

Although there are no official political parties in Iran, the formation of coalitions of interests is a natural process within any society; these networks might take different forms or names, but they are generally recognized as representing different positions. Within Iran, one can distinguish a spectrum ranging from, on one end, those most faithful to the original intent and spirit of the Revolution and to Khomeini’s legacy (and thus most closely following his specific interpretation of Shia Islam) – to, at the opposite end, groups and people associated with the recent movements of popular protest, who have been excluded, or have excluded themselves, from the official political process. In-between these there is a broad political middle, trying to be a part of the process, with some walking a centrist line while having their bearings more in the traditionalist direction, and others belonging to the reformist camp.

Of course, various readings are possible; in the media, very often the political life is simply divided into traditionalists and reformists, But a bare bones description does not do justice to the complexity of the situation on the ground. For example, the traditionalist direction, usually identified as “the principalists”. is by no means monolithic; an important dividing line has formed recently between the “deviants” or radicals, as Ahmadinejad’s populists are called, and those who are closer to the Supreme Leader Khamenei and to the clerical circles. This conflict burst out in 2009, when Ahmadinejan “walked out” of cabinet meetings for almost two weeks, in protest to Khamenei imposing his people and influence within the government.

Given the exclusion from the official political competition of those who had a direct involvement in the 2009 events, the centrist-reformist part of the spectrum covers a broad range as well, but is generically where the dissatisfied place their hopes and votes. Within this group there are many figures who have occupied or still occupy important positions in the system, and who have been a part of it for decades, and thus possess not only popular appeal (being a reformist voice), but also official, institutional legitimacy. Among them, Hassan Rouhani has been known for a long time as a not-so-prominent moderate voice.

Given the complexity of the factors listed above, it is easy to understand that the Council of Guardians probably did not have an easy job vetting and selecting the candidates “qualified” to run for the presidency. At the end of the registration process there were almost 700 people who manifested their intention to run in the election; true enough, most of them had no chances of being taken into serious consideration. For example, among them there were several women, although the Constitution prescribes that the President must be a male Shia Muslim. From the CoG’s perspective, however, the most important decisions had to be made about a small number of prominent players, who possessed the political and religious backgrounds that made them acceptable for the regime, and were (at least potentially) attractive to the people. Two of these, Hashemi Rafsanjani and Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei, were especially interesting cases, Rafsanjani because of representing the moderate pragmatic line and having a reputable political past (friend of Ayatollah Khomeini and two-time Iranian president), and Mashaei because of enjoying the forceful backing of Ahmadinejad’s camp (which certainly did him no good with either Khamenei or the Council of Guardians).

At the end of the selection process, the Council of Guardians ended up with a brief list of eight suitable and suited candidates (biographies), including, on the traditionalist side, the Khamenei-backed mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf; the adviser to the Leader, Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel; the former head of the Iran Revolutionary Guard and adversary of Ahmadinejad, Mohsen Rezaei; and the chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, strongly supported by the Ahmadinejad people. On the centrist, or pragmatic-reformist side, the approved candidates were Ali Akbar Velayati, a former Foreign Minister close to the Rafsanjani circles; a former vice-president of Iran, current member of the Expediency Council, and prominent friend of Khatami, Mohammad-Reza Aref; and a lesser-known cleric and former chief nuclear negotiator named Hassan Rouhani. An unknown quantity, perhaps straddling the two camps, but with a long political-administrative record, was the eighth and last approved candidate,  Mohammad Gharazi.

Since these candidates were not selected so as to have only one representative of each faction (as they are not officially recognized), during the campaign that followed (and which included televised debates) they had to take some strategic decisions in order not to dilute the vote that would go in support of the direction they represented. Accordingly, Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel withdrew in order to strengthen the so-called “conservative” camp. In the reformist camp, it was important, but for a long time not clear, behind whom would Rafsanjani and Khatami throw their support; finally, their choice was Hassan Rouhani. In consequence, Mohammad-Reza Aref withdrew, for Rouhani’s benefit. Slowly but surely, through careful messaging and key endorsements, Rouhani rose to become the candidate representing the reformist direction. With his established past and moderate reformist rhetoric, he became the attractive choice for pragmatists, moderates, reformists – and, by default, for those who had been engaged with the opposition movement. An interesting contrast arose, therefore, between a carefully calibrated, generically encouraging, yet moderate rhetoric from the candidate, and the increasingly larger and louder crowds of supporters (who at one rally even chanted the name of detained opposition leader Mir Hussain Mousavi).

The possibility of such a broad, popular coalition forming behind Rouhani has its explanation in the generalized unhappiness with the state in which Iran finds itself – with inflation, recession, youth unemployment, a conflict-ridden foreign policy, and general insecurity about the future. No amount of ideological rhetoric, not even the most exacerbated one, can supplant the failure of a regime to provide these basics elements of security, and there is no factor that undermines a government’s messaging more, than a failing economic situation.

This large and widespread disaffection with the regime – including Ahmadinejad’s administration of the economy and the Khamenei-lead control over the society – and the safety that both the people and possibly also the regime could find in such a centrist, experienced, economically-minded candidate like Rouhani, might explain why he was both successful in the campaign, and tolerated by the powers that be. Rouhani’s messaging, meanwhile, maintained his moderate positioning, and he kept his statements generic and well-meaning enough, to contain hints both toward the Green Movement people, and the ideological power establishment.

But what do we know about Rouhani? Hassan Rouhani is a Shiite cleric, born in 1948. Until the June elections, Rouhani has been serving on the Expediency Council and the Assembly of Experts; before that, he was a leading member of the Majlis for 20 years. His security and foreign policy background also goes back a long way, starting with the leadership role he played during the Iran-Iraq war; afterward, for 16 years he was a member (and then the head) of the Supreme National Security Council; and until recently he lead the Center for Strategic Research. In 1999 he came out forcefully against the popular protests, on the side of maintaining public order. Between 2003 and 2005 he was Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, brokering agreements with the EU. In recent years he was a constant critic of Ahmadinejad’s mishandling of both the foreign policy and the economy.

During the campaign, he carefully defined his position: “I have no problem working with Principalists or Reformists, I have a problem with extremists… and I have come to replace extremism with moderation.” He further clarified this self-definition when he mentioned by name the three key representatives of these factions (Supreme Leader Khamenei, Rafsanjani and Khatami), connecting himself neatly with all of them: “my close relationship with all three men began before the revolution and God-willing it will remain that way.” Thus, a moderate figure – but one of reform and pragmatism, against the thick ideological overtones of the previous president and of some hardliners. He said things that sounded good to the people, while not alienating the regime, as when he advocated for the need to pay attention to the impulses toward change that arise from “religion, freedom, and the people’s movement towards democracy.” No wonder that the people responded, pinning their hopes – for change, for a different voice, for a channel for their discontent and frustration after the uprising of 2009 – on him.

And the people expressed this support on the polling day, at the voting booth.  In Iran, the president is elected by popular vote, in two rounds. In the first round, all candidates are in the run (six, in our case). If no candidate obtains over 50%, a second round is organized, with only the top two candidates participating (those who obtained the most votes); in the second round, the candidate with the most votes (surely a majority) wins the elections. On June 14, the date of the first round of voting, there was an atmosphere of expectation, waiting to see if the regime would simply impose its will (as it did 2009), and who would qualify to the second round. To most people’s surprise, not only was the regime quick in making public the results, but the winner became apparent already from the first round of voting: it was Hassan Rouhani, with about 51% of the vote (results; results). According to the authorities, 72 % of the 50 million Iranian voters (including Iranians from abroad) participated in the elections. The win was clear and quite overwhelming – especially given the precedents.

As for Rouhani, in his first press conference after winning the elections, his emphasis did not change a bit; the word he kept repeating was “moderation”. Then. on August 4, 2013, he was inaugurated as the new President of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Of course, the challenges for him and for the Iranians who greeted his election with immense enthusiasm are just starting. After the task of forming a government (i.e. making the right selection for members of the cabinet), the people of Iran (and also the rest of the world) will look eagerly to see if he will be willing, as the new President, and if he will be able, within the limits of this position, and the intricate Iranian political system, to transform his talk about moderate reform, economic pragmatism, and less tense foreign relations – into effective action.

NOTE

An excellent source documenting the campaign and the elections was Wilson Center’s Iran Election Update series, prepared by Hanif Zarrabi-Kashani (Scribd). Al Jazeera also followed very closely and reported abundantly on the process.

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