On June 14, Iranian voters went to the polls for their nation’s first presidential election since 2009 to choose the successor to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In an outcome that surprised most outside observers, the election was won by Hassan Rouhani, a 64-year-old centrist cleric who served as Iran’s lead nuclear negotiator from 2003-2005. During the campaign, Rouhani called for greater social freedoms, greater flexibility in Iran’s relations with the West, and a more pragmatic approach to governance. His win represents a significant defeat for Iran’s conservatives and a clear desire for change from the country’s current course by the Iranian public. It is far from clear whether Rouhani will be able to reduce the country’s isolation or improve its troubled economy, but his success at the ballot box is seen as a hopeful sign by many inside and outside Iran.
Rouhani is a longtime Tehran insider who is thought to be personally close with Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He is a moderate, not a reformist. Much of the media coverage of the election has used the terms as if they are interchangeable, but they are two distinct strands of Iranian political thought. Broadly speaking, Iranian reformists hail from the political left. Their focus has been the promotion of greater democracy within Iran and the relaxation of restrictions on social liberties. They support the Iranian theocracy that was established after the 1979 revolution but believe its legal and moral authority must be derived from popular support. Iran’s moderates are a bit different. They do not fundamentally question the existing power structure, but they do believe that strict adherence to the regime’s revolutionary ideology should take a back seat to the more important tasks of modernizing and reforming the country’s economy. To that end, they favor foreign policies that facilitate Iran’s engagement with the rest of the world, believing that the confrontational approach embraced by hardliners has been counterproductive to the nation’s interests. The moderates’ standard bearer over the years has been Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran’s president from 1989-1997 who decided to run again in 2013 but whose candidacy was prohibited by Iran’s Guardian Council at the last minute.
The third ideological group within Iran, conservative hardliners, had seemed ascendant until recently. Many Iranians were disillusioned with the tenure of reformist president Mohammad Khatami by the time his second term ended in 2005, and the election of hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that year appeared to deal a fatal blow to the reformist movement. The enormous protests that followed Ahmadinejad’s disputed reelection in 2009 indicated that internal opposition to Iran’s conservatives remained strong, but the harsh government crackdown that followed led to the arrest of many reformist leaders and forced others into exile. With Ahmadinejad having been returned to office with Khamenei’s strong support, conservatives seemed to be in firm control in Tehran.
The intervening years, however, demonstrated the fluid, often unpredictable nature of Iranian politics. Deep fissures developed within the conservative ranks, illustrated most starkly by a public split between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei, Ahmadinejad’s onetime political patron. The rift ultimately was caused by Ahmadinejad’s efforts to challenge Khamenei’s authority as Supreme Leader, but it also reflected ideological and theological differences among conservatives that may not abate with Ahmadinejad’s departure. These divisions coincided with the emergence of an alliance between Iran’s moderate and reformist factions. Both groups had intended to rally around Rafsanjani’s candidacy in 2013, but his surprising disqualification left only two candidates among the final eight who were not in the conservative camp: Rouhani and former vice president Muhammad Reza Aref. The lone reformist candidate in the race, Aref agreed to drop out a few days prior to the election in order to ensure that he and the moderate Rouhani did not draw votes from one another. The fact that Rouhani won an outright majority in a race with five other candidates indicates that the reform movement is an enduring feature of modern Iranian politics. Rouhani did not come from the ranks of Iranian reformists, but he would not have won the election without their enthusiastic support.
Iran’s President-elect, Hassan Rouhani. (Source: CNN)
It is important to understand, however, that Rouhani’s power will be limited. The Iranian government is characterized by what is sometimes referred to as “dual sovereignty.” According to the country’s constitution, elected officials, including the president and members of parliament, and unelected clerics, led by the Supreme Leader, are supposed to share power. The Supreme Leader is the nation’s ultimate governmental and religious authority. In public, Khamenei has tried to appear above the political fray, but he wields enormous power behind the scenes, and he has not been reluctant to use it. Iran’s president is the nation’s second ranking office holder, but he has significantly less power than the Supreme Leader. Strikingly, the president does not control the nation’s military or paramilitary forces. He is, however, responsible for naming cabinet ministers and provincial governors, and he oversees the nation’s economic policies. As Iran’s highest elected official and its head of state, the president also commands a nationwide audience that allows him to strongly influence the substance and tone of public debates, even when it comes to topics that technically lie outside his purview.
Khamenei’s stated views and actions over the years have demonstrated that his views are closely aligned with Iran’s hardliners who dominate Iran’s clerical structure and its security forces. He and his allies strongly opposed – and were able to effectively stymie – the reformist policies pursued by Khatami during his presidency from 1997-2005. When Khatami was succeeded by the militant Ahmadinejad, the new president seemed much more to Khamenei’s liking – until Ahmadinejad turned on him. After those two experiences,most informed observers felt certain that Khamenei would ensure the election of a fellow conservative who would defer to his leadership. A report by the Atlantic Council one month before the election confidently predicted that Khamenei would “seek to engineer the vote and might resort to fraud if necessary to anoint his preferred candidate.” It is in this context that Rouhani’s victory came as a surprise.
Why, then, did Khamenei not act to ensure that one of the hardline candidates prevailed? Khamenei’s mind has always been something of a mystery, so it is difficult to speculate on his thinking with much certainty. He may have been genuinely surprised by the outcome, as so many people were. Overturning the public’s verdict by declaring the election results invalid would have been a very dramatic act, one that would have deeply undermined the regime’s already diminished legitimacy in the eyes of the Iranian people. In the aftermath of the enormous turmoil that occurred in 2009, Khamenei has been keen to promote high voter turnout in subsequent elections as a way of bolstering the government’s image both at home and abroad. In fact, he publicly encouraged voters to go to the polls in the weeks preceding this year’s elections, as did the leadership of Iran’s Basij paramilitary force. But this goal proved problematic for Iranian hardliners, as it was reform minded voters whose disillusionment with Iran’s political process had left them ambivalent about whether or not to bother casting a ballot. In the end, enough of those voters turned out to put Rouhani over the top, and Khamenei was apparently willing to tolerate the victory of the moderate regime insider if it ensured the election’s outcome would go undisputed.
It is also possible, however unlikely, that Iran’s international isolation and deteriorating economy have persuaded Khamenei that agreeing to limit the country’s nuclear program is in its best interest. If so, the election of the moderate Rouhani could provide the Supreme Leader with a political opening that will allow him to step back from the unyielding approach he has embraced so far. However doubtful this scenario may seem, it is exactly this outcome that current U.S. policies toward Iran are intended to achieve.
A less optimistic possibility is that Khamenei permitted Rouhani’s election because he intends to sideline or eliminate the office of president altogether. Throughout his 24-year tenure as Supreme Leader, he has always been quick to see potential threats to his authority, and he has long striven to consolidate his power through his control of the judiciary and Iran’s security forces, particularly the Revolutionary Guards. As Alireza Nader noted in a recent Rand analysis, Iran’s political system has become “increasingly authoritarian and militarized” under Khamenei, a trend that has been particularly pronounced in recent years. In October 2011, at the height of his faceoff with Ahmadinejad, the Supreme Leader publicly suggested that the office of president could be abolished in the future and replaced with a prime minister selected by parliament rather than Iranian voters. If Khamenei were to make such a move – and many observers in and out of Iran think it’s just a matter of when – it would remove a competing source of power and make an already authoritarian state even more so. But doing so would likely be deeply unpopular in Iran, so much so that it could even threaten the regime’s stability – something Khamenei wants to avoid at all costs. With the renegade Ahmadinejad about to leave office, the Supreme Leader may decide to refrain from trying to get rid of the presidency, at least for now.
If Rouhani’s presidency is allowed to survive, he could find it challenging to meet the public’s expectations, for a number of reasons. Iran’s economic woes are largely, though not entirely, due to international sanctions, and getting those sanctions lifted will necessitate reaching some sort of agreement with the United States and its European allies. There are a number of major hurdles that must be surmounted before such an accord can be reached, not the least of which is the deep resistance of Iran’s hardliners. Even if those impediments can be overcome – a big if – it will take time, which means the sanctions are unlikely to scaled back any time soon. In addition, reversing the damage done to Iran’s economy by Ahmadinejad’s mismanagement will not occur overnight. Rouhani is also likely encounter significant resistance from Khamenei and his fellow hardliners if he follows through on his promises to expand personal freedoms, just as Mohammad Khatami did. Rouhani’s election last month has understandably generated a lot of hope within Iran, but those hopes carry with them the risk of widespread disillusionment if they cannot be met.
-- Richard Purcell