Moment of change

Print edition : July 12, 2013

Hassan Rouhani. The moderate cleric forged ahead in the last phase of the campaign. Photo: ATTA KENARE/AFP

Supporters of Rouhani at a victory celebration in Tehran on June 15. Photo: Ebrahim Noroozi/AP

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei casts his ballot in Tehran on June 14. Photo: AP

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad after the first round of the presidential election. Photo: AFP

Saeed Jalili, Iran's top nuclear negotiator and conservative presidential candidate, after voting in southern Tehran. Photo: BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP

In a “victory of moderation over extremism”, Hassan Rouhani trounces the conservatives to become the next President of Iran.

VOTING in droves, Iranians elected on June 14 Hassan Rouhani, a moderate cleric, as their next President, surprising many who had assumed that a hardliner aligned to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei would be the winner.

Many commentators, located mostly in the West, had expected a pro-Khamenei conservative to win because Iranian elections, according to them, are not fair, and democracy with Iranian characteristics is a sham. Rouhani’s landslide triumph, which blew away the conservatives, has proved the punditry, which is compulsively inclined to highlight the downside of Iran’s complex realities, wrong. The final voting figures have revealed that Rouhani secured 18,613,329 of the 36,704,156 votes cast, crossing the mandatory 50 per cent threshold, avoiding a run-off with his nearest rival. Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, who came second, got only 16.56 per cent of the vote. Saeed Jalili, considered frontrunner at the beginning of the electoral campaign, came a distant third. Mohsen Rezaei’s forgettable outing in the engaging presidential election ended when the former commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), logged the fourth position.

Rouhani’s resounding success is the result of a combination of several factors, including the astute tactical ingenuity shown by the centrists and the reformists. For the first time during the tail end of the campaign, non-conservative forces formed a coalition to back Rouhani as their sole candidate. Former President Mohammad Khatami played a big part in this exercise. A father figure in the reformist camp, Khatami prevailed over Mohammad-Reza-Aref, the only candidate from the stable of reformists, to step down in favour of Rouhani. “In consideration of Khatami’s explicit opinion, and the experiences of two past presidential elections, I declare my withdrawal from the election campaign,” Aref announced, as the election campaign entered its terminal phase. On the contrary, the failure of the conservatives to rally behind a single candidate contributed significantly to their undoing. Their whitewash in the elections bore out the warnings in a section of the media that conservatives were hurtling into a disaster on account of their failure to unite. In a write-up before the elections, Hussein Shariatmadari, editor-in-chief of Kayhan, a daily known for its proximity to the Supreme Leader, said: “We now expect the principlist [conservative] candidates to unite together without wasting time,” adding that a multiplicity of candidates was a recipe for defeat. “Isn’t a single [principlist] candidate better than votes divided among them?”

Ayatollah Khamenei deserves credit for exhorting people to vote, irrespective of their electoral preferences, and then for ensuring that the election was conducted in a transparent manner. The Iranian establishment astounded critics by allowing Rouhani to run a colour-coded campaign—his election headquarters was awash with the colour purple and his supporters wore purple wristbands and strung ribbons of the same colour. Rouhani’s campaign style evoked memories of the colour-coded revolutions of Eastern Europe, a provocation that Iran’s conservative establishment, had it wanted, could have averted easily. The liberty provided to Rouhani by the Interior Ministry is all the more striking in the light of the bitter experience of the 2009 election, when the reformists pervasively used the green colour to win the battle of hearts and minds.

The successful culmination of the 2013 election seems to have imparted a sense of closure by healing the wounds left behind by the 2009 election, when Iranians took to the streets to protest against the perceived rigging of votes to bring Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the presidential office for a second term. Four years later, the Islamic Republic, with its legitimacy restored, appears more politically unified and ready to engage with the rest of the world. Rafsanjani’s remarks at the end of the election seemed to add to a growing sense of national solidarity. “If the enemies of the Islamic Republic of Iran have [the slightest] bit of decency they must accept that Iran held the most democratic election in the world and that they cannot cast any doubt on it,” he asserted. His observations, without an iota of bitterness, acquire additional weight as Ahmadinejad had been disqualified to contest for a third term. The Guardian Council, the body loyal to the Supreme Leader that vets the list of aspirants to the presidency, had barred Rafsanjani and Esfandiar Rahim Meshaei, a protege of Ahmadinejad, from the contest.

Rouhani characterised his election as a “victory of moderation over extremism”, the Aftab news website reported. “Thanks to God who, once again, shed the light of wisdom and moderation on Iran.” He added that his victory was “a major and powerful step taken towards national interests and management on the basis of moderation, reform and rationality”. But if the West was looking for signals of compromise in Rouhani’s utterances, it was in for a rude surprise. Rouhani exhorted the “international community” to “accept Iran’s rights” and use “respectful language” in its conversations with Tehran. He urged the world powers “to expand relations based on mutual respect”, which would enable the establishment of “peace, security and development in the world and in the region”. Known for his mastery over five languages—English, German, French, Russian and Arabic—apart from his native Persian, Rouhani is well regarded for his affability and readiness to engage with the rest of the world in order to promote Iran’s core national interests. But at the same time he is a tough nationalist, a deep regime insider whose political evolution has been embedded in Iran’s turbulent post-revolution experiences.

Revolutionary credentials

Rouhani has impeccable revolutionary credentials. He joined Ayatollah Khomeini’s legions in toppling the pro-American Shah in 1979. Soon after the revolution, Rouhani found himself in the midst of the highly destructive Iran-Iraq war, as the commander of the national air defence. Under President Khatami, he was the head of the National Security Council, and headed the nuclear dialogue with the West—the negotiations yielded a pause in Iran’s uranium enrichment programme. Ahead of the presidential election, he continued to serve on the National Security Council and two other important advisory bodies—the Expediency Council and the Assembly of Experts. Yet, Rouhani does not have a track record of a pure establishment man, having maintained close ties with Rafsanjani and Khatami even when the two were out of favour with the system’s core following the controversial 2009 presidential election.

Engagement with the West

Rouhani’s elevation to the presidency, brought about by a burst of fresh youthful energy that swung the electoral balance in his favour, opens the door for a new round of engagement with the West, especially the United States. The U.S. and its allies have to understand that the moderates in Iran can implant themselves only if they deliver on the economy—a possibility that is inevitably enmeshed with the lifting of sanctions and progress on the nuclear table.

There is an erroneous argument that is being regularly paraded by partisans that Iran, especially the Supreme Leader’s office that runs the nuclear negotiators, is the obstacle to a breakthrough in the nuclear dialogue. The specious conclusion falls apart on detailed non-partisan scrutiny. On the contrary, it can be argued that it is the insistence of the West to enforce capitulation—driven by flawed geopolitical calculations—instead of forging a mutually beneficial deal that is responsible for stalling the dialogue.

The U.S. has been leading the campaign to pressure Iran to halt nuclear enrichment. But it would be unrealistic to expect Tehran to stop enrichment and shed the prerequisites of nuclear weapons capability, especially after the experiences of regime-change in Iraq and Libya. Many Iranian insiders disclose in private conversations that Iraq was invaded only after the West had fully ascertained that the regime was no longer in possession of weapons of mass destruction. As has been evident after the invasion, the dangers posed by former President Saddam Hussein’s mass destruction weapons were pure fiction to justify the invasion. Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi was slain only after he had voluntarily terminated his atomic weapons programme in anticipation of a normalised relationship with the West, which never materialised. On the contrary, North Korea, braving the empty rhetoric flowing from the West, remains unscathed despite the development of nuclear bombs and delivery systems for them.

During the Almaty talks with the global powers, Iran had agreed to limit enrichment to a 20 per cent level, but it also demanded a phased lifting of sanctions as part of an open-ended deal. It is unlikely that the new President and the Supreme Leader will differ on this position in future rounds of talks if and when they begin. On the contrary, real progress on the Iranian nuclear issue may commence only if the U.S. replaces the mantra of regime change with a doctrine of pervasive engagement with Iran.

So far, there are little signs that Iran and the West are on the threshold of a new beginning. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was blunt in disparaging Rouhani’s rise to the presidency. “The international community should not fall into wishful thinking and be tempted to ease pressure on Iran to stop its nuclear programme,” he said following the election. He added: “Iran will be judged on its actions. If it insists on continuing to develop its nuclear programme the answer needs to be clear—stopping its nuclear programme by any means.”

The sound bites emerging from Washington, focussed on one-sided obligations, are not too encouraging either. “We, along with our international partners, remain ready to engage directly with the Iranian government. We hope they will honour their international obligations to the rest of the world in order to reach a diplomatic solution that will fully address the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme,” said Secretary of State John Kerry after the election results were announced.

Analysts say that in the coming days Rouhani may have to be prepared for sustained hostility by the Barack Obama administration, which has already demonstrated its belligerence in Syria, a key ally of Iran, by deciding to arm the opposition there.

Russian overture

On the contrary, Rouhani may discover a burst of warmth from Russia, which is already confronting the U.S., the ex-colonial powers of Europe, and the Arab Gulf states in Syria. Unsurprisingly, Russian President Vladimir Putin was quick to send a loaded message of felicitation to Rouhani after his election. In his telegram, Putin said he was confident that Rouhani’s presidency “will contribute to the prosperity of friendly Iran and further strengthening of Russian-Iranian relations”. A statement by the Kremlin press office added: “The Russian President also confirmed readiness for consistent development of mutually advantageous cooperation with Iran in very diverse fields in the interests of ensuring regional security and international stability.”

With West Asia emerging as the prime vector for causing a major split in the international system, and Russia already making a pro-Tehran overture, Rouhani may have to steel himself for making clear-eyed choices regarding Iran’s strategic partners, as fence sitting and wishful thinking may no longer be an option.