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”.
No post-election gatherings
Even so, Iran’s political system adopted last year a law creating an election commission to oversee and certify the Interior Ministry’s conduct of the 2013 election. This and other systemic responses to potential or real abuse – such as the closure of the Kahrizak Detention Centre where cases of police brutality were reported after the 2009 election – demonstrate the Islamic Republic’s capacity to reform itself.
Pointing this out in the West prompts slanderous accusations of murderous appeasement – but those who make such accusations are consistently proven wrong, as Iranian politics regularly defies their cartoonish and derogatory stereotypes.
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The biggest difference from 2009 is the behaviour of the candidates themselves. This year, all of the candidates agreed not to hold post-election gatherings or make statements about the outcome until all votes were counted and final results officially announced. They stuck to this agreement as the Interior Ministry periodically announced partial results coming in from polling stations across Iran. Despite the fact that president-elect Rouhani won by just 261,251 votes over the 50 percent threshold, his rivals immediately issued messages of congratulations, as did Ayatollah Khamenei.
Compare that with 2009, when – while polls were still open and no votes had been counted – Mousavi declared to have official “information” that he had won “by a substantial margin”. This set the stage for him to claim fraud and call supporters into the streets to protest, giving birth to the Green Movement. When Mousavi failed to back up his charge of fraud with a shred of hard evidence, the Greens’ popular base shrank dramatically – because they were no longer challenging a particular election outcome, but the very idea of the Islamic Republic as a political system.
Notwithstanding the Greens’ failure, the movement has ever since been a primary vessel for the fantasies of Iranian expatriates, pro-Israel advocates and Western interventionists – that Western-style secular democracy would replace participatory Islamist governance in Iran.
But reformists and their centrist allies – who support the Islamic Republic, even if their visions for its future differ from those of Iranian principlists – distanced themselves from the Green Movement. This enabled them to regroup and to learn lessons from the 2009 election, from Rafsanjani’s presidential defeat in 2005, and from Khatami’s setbacks during his presidency that proved crucial to Rouhani’s electoral success this year.
The United States and the West need to get over the pernicious wishful thinking that the Islamic Republic is not an enduring and legitimate system for Iranians living in their country. And the Islamic Republic’s core features of participatory Islamist governance and foreign policy independence have broad appeal not just in Iran, but for hundreds of millions of Muslims across the Middle East. It’s time for the US to come to terms with that reality.
Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett are authors of Going to Tehran: Why the United States Must Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran (New York: Metropolitan, 2013) and teach international relations, he at Penn State, she at American University.
Seyed Mohammad Marandi is professor of North American Studies and dean of the Faculty of World Studies at the University of Tehran.