The United States’ perennially mistaken Iran “experts” are already spinning Hassan Rouhani’s victory in Iran’s presidential election as a clear proof of the Islamic Republic’s ongoing implosion. In fact, Rouhani’s success sends a very different message: it is well past time for the US to come to terms with the reality of a stable and politically dynamic Islamic Republic of Iran.
Three days before the election, we warned that US and expatriate Iranian pundits were confidently but wrongly positing how Iran’s election process would “be manipulated to produce a winner chosen by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei – a “selection rather than an election” – consolidating Khamenei’s dictatorial hold over Iranian politics”. Many, like the Brookings Institution’s Suzanne Maloney, identified nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili as Khamenei’s “anointed” candidate; the Washington Post declared that Rouhani “will not be allowed to win”.
By contrast, we held that Iran was “in the final days of a real contest”, during which candidates had “broad and regular access to national media”, had “advertised and held campaign events”, and had “participated in three nationally televised (and widely watched) debates”. The election “will surprise America’s so-called Iran ‘experts’,” we wrote, for the winner will emerge “because he earned the requisite degree of electoral support, not because he was ‘annointed’”.
The real contest
Rouhani’s victory demonstrates that the election was a real contest, and that the perceived quality of candidates’ campaigns mattered greatly in many Iranians’ decisions for whom to vote. In the end, most Iranians seemed to believe – and acted as if they believed – that they had a meaningful choice to make. Besides the presidential ballot, Iranians voted for more than 200,000 local and municipal council seats – with more than 800,000 candidates standing for those seats – a “detail” never mentioned by those constantly deriding the Islamic Republic’s “dictatorship”.
Certainly, Western “experts” were wrong that former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s disqualification had driven Iranians into a state of political alienation and apathy. Rafsanjani is, at this point, not a popular figure for many Iranians; he almost certainly would have lost had he been on this year’s ballot. Rafsanjani’s sidelining was a necessary condition for the rise of Rouhani, a Rafsanjani protege.
More broadly, Rafsanjani’s dream has been to build a pragmatic centre in Iranian politics, eschewing “extremes” of both conservatives – or “principlists”, as they are called in Iran – and reformists. Instead, he has antagonised both camps without creating an enduring constituency committed to a centrist vision.
The election of Rouhani – the only cleric on the ballot, who campaigned against “extremism” in all forms and was endorsed by Rafsanjani – may contribute more to realising Rafsanjani’s dream than another unsuccessful Rafsanjani presidential bid.
Going into the campaign, Rouhani’s biggest weakness was foreign policy; in 2003-05, during Rouhani’s tenure as chief nuclear negotiator, Tehran agreed to suspend uranium enrichment for nearly two years, but got nothing from Western powers in return. In fact, criticism of Rouhani’s negotiating approach was an important factor in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s first election to the presidency in 2005.
During this year’s campaign, Rouhani effectively addressed this potential vulnerability, arguing that his approach allowed Iran to avoid sanctions while laying the ground for the subsequent development in its nuclear infrastructure. Moreover, Rouhani’s campaign video included praise from armed forces chief of staff General Seyed Hassan Firouzabadi, which bolstered Rouhani’s perceived credibility on security issues.
In the week between the third candidates’ debate – on foreign policy – and election day, polls showed with accumulating clarity that Rouhani was building the strongest momentum of any candidate, along with Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf – who came in second, and whom we flagged two days before the vote as a likely contender with Rouhani in a second-round runoff.
By election day, polls showed Rouhani pulling ahead of Qalibaf and his other opponents – a sharp contrast to Iran’s 2009 presidential election, when no methodologically sound poll ever showed former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi ahead of incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Key to Rouhani’s success was his ability to forge coalitions, especially with reformists. Rouhani is not himself a reformist. He belongs to the Society of Combatant Clergy, the conservative antipode to the Assembly of Combatant Clerics founded by Mohammad Khatami – who became Iran’s first reformist president in 1997 – and other reform-minded clerics. Overall, Rouhani’s share of the vote was higher in small towns and villages, where people are more conservative, than in larger cities – largely because he is a cleric.
The real reformist on this year’s ballot was Mohammad Reza Aref, who served as Khatami’s first vice-president. Aref, however, proved a lacklustre candidate and attracted little popular support. Other reformists pressed him to quit after the final candidates’ debate, which freed Khatami to endorse Rouhani. While reformists were not the core of Rouhani’s electoral base, their votes were crucial to getting him over the 50 percent threshold.
Iran’s 2013 presidential election also confirms a point we have been making for four years – that, contrary to Western conventional wisdom, no hard evidence has been put forward showing that Iran’s 2009 presidential election, when Ahmadinejad won re-election over Mousavi and two other opponents, was “stolen”.