The Middle East Channel

What’s surprising about Iran’s election

Until three days ago, many scholars and experts of Iran argued that the presidential elections in the country had become an uninteresting matter. The crisis in 2009, caused by the suspicions of electoral fraud to favor President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection, played down the observers’ enthusiasm about the possibility of an electoral contest bringing about an ...


Until three days ago, many scholars and experts of Iran argued that the presidential elections in the country had become an uninteresting matter. The crisis in 2009, caused by the suspicions of electoral fraud to favor President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection, played down the observers’ enthusiasm about the possibility of an electoral contest bringing about an unexpected electoral result. After 2009, the Islamic Republic of Iran went under an authoritarian entrenchment and the least likely thing is to see a moderate, centrist man who greets the political prisoners during his speeches become the next president.

Indeed, the 2013 presidential election was perceived as the "Leader’s election" and almost everyone expected Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to use his power to influence the electoral result according to his wishes. Moderate cleric Hassan Rowhani’s victory came as a surprise, because he was not the supreme leader’s protégé and because, against even the most optimistic hypothesis, he won the election with no need of a second ballot. What does this result tell us about Iranian politics and the future of the country? 

1. Somehow democratic. Some observers feared the possibility of electoral fraud, arguing that after having difficult relations with the last three presidents of the republic (Ali Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mohammad Khatami, and Ahmadinejad), Khamenei would not run the risk of having another hostile president by his side. The constitution of the Islamic Republic indeed designed the whole institutional system around these two offices, although the supreme leader is much more powerful than the president. Thus, a difficult relationship between the two is likely to bring the country to a deadlock, as happened during Khatami’s governments.

However, contrary to the predictions of a rigged vote, Seyedamir Hossein Mahdavi observed that the possibilities of healthy elections were actually there and were strengthened by factional conflicts and elite competition. Ahmadinejad, for instance, tried to play down the risk of fraud by calling for widespread popular participation in the election and by emphasizing that the supreme leader’s vote is one and equal to any other citizen’s vote. Would Khamenei be willing to manipulate the electoral result, the high turnout, the hike in popular participation that the electoral campaign witnessed at the last moment, and Rowhani’s early vote advantage on the other candidates made it more difficult and increased the risk of popular discontent and mass mobilization.

Khamenei’s willingness to manipulate the electoral result is of course a matter of speculation, but what is certain is that this result will be used by the Iranian elite to show that the Islamic Republic is a real democracy, that the popular will is fully respected, and that the people are supporting the system — as their massive participation in the election demonstrates. This will be used both for purposes of international credibility and internal legitimacy.

2. Elite reunification and the shifting political pendulum. Despite that it will not be that easy to rehabilitate Mir Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi (Green Movement leaders who have been under house arrest since 2009) and reintroduce them into the political life of the country, to a certain extent Rowhani’s presidential term will lead to a reunification within the elite. Today it is indeed reassured of the republican nature and democratic credentials of the system, which has proved able to accept and run a fair election.

However, major conflicts remain in place. The first potential conflict is between Khamenei and Rowhani himself in his quality of president. Since the very establishment of the Islamic Republic the relationship between the supreme leader and the presidents has not been an easy one. This is particularly true for Khamenei who, since his ascension to the leadership, has faced significant challenges coming from the presidents. However, he has always made clear who is the most powerful man in the country and lost no opportunity to steer the "political pendulum" of the national politics according to his interests.

The experience of Mohammed Khatami’s governments is particularly telling of Khamenei’s determination in leading the political game. Khatami became president of the republic in 1997 and was reconfirmed in office in 2001: in both elections, he collected an impressive amount of personal preferences and throughout his mandates, he and his political program were supported by many social groups that staged public demonstrations and other public initiatives in his favor. Despite the fact that Khatami and his reform plan were highly popular, Khamenei never hesitated in taking the upper hand and directing the country’s affairs in the opposite direction.

Khamenei was and has always been the master of the pendulum. But today, while he still is a powerful but old man, his position has been weakened by Rowhani’s election. Not because he fears Rowhani himself, who is a centrist and says he will compromise with all the institutions of the system and factions in the parliament; but because behind Rowhani is Rafsanjani, a man that Khamenei has struggled against for many years, since Rafsanjani was president. More recently, not only has Rafsanjani supported the opposition Green Movement, he also actively explored the possibility of impeaching Khamenei during the 2009 crisis. Moreover, Rafsanjani probably has the ambition of becoming the next supreme leader. The conflict between Khamenei and Rafsanjani is the second issue that will characterize Iranian politics in the future and will determine the trajectory of the pendulum.

3. Be patient: it is never too late. Rowhani’s victory came as a surprise also because his electoral campaign was below expectations until the very last days. He was under attack for being "too remissive with the West" during his first TV interview and the presence of two reformist candidates, he and Mohammad Reza Aref, was somehow confusing. The Mujahhedin-e enqelab party (one of the most important reformist parties in Iran) declared that it was not going to support any particular candidate and Mostafa Tajzadeh (one of the most important personalities of the reformist front) declared his support for the electoral boycott. Such was the situation until the very last moment of the electoral campaign.

But during the week before the election Aref withdrew his candidacy; Rowhani received the formal endorsement from Rafsanjani, Khatami, and the most relevant reformist and pro-Rafsanjani personalities and political groups in the country; and finally, popular demonstrations organized in support of Rowhani’s candidacy and people took the streets in Tehran, Shiraz, Orumihe, and Mashad.

To those who would not bet on last-minute opportunities, this election teaches two things. The first is that it is never too late, and the second is that Khatami’s and Rafsanjani’s decision to throw their weight behind Rowhani changed the context and made it possible for Rowhani to gather enough support from reformist and centrist political groups. But probably the most relevant lesson is that the reformist-centrist coalition was able to guess the people’s demands and necessities, stressing the need for moderation in foreign policy and more openness in the sphere of domestic politics.

4. Regional and international politics. In the past few years, Iranian soft power has
been decreasing in the region. In particular, the Islamic Republic has been judged as inconsistent because of the repression it enacted at home and support it gave to protesters in North Africa. The Islamic Republic presents itself as a "great democracy:" it cannot run the risk of being considered inconsistent anymore and therefore needed to avoid even the smallest suspicion of electoral engineering. The Iranian position is also further complicated by the events in Bahrain and in that the strategic competition against Saudi Arabia has become tougher, broadening the Sunni and Shiite divide all over the region. This position for Iran is critical at best, if also considering the imminent withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and the uncertain development of the situation in Syria, which is likely to infect Lebanon and trigger further regional instability and potential hostility against Iran. As for the nuclear negotiations, the deadlock of talks and the sanctions are causing a major crisis at the domestic and international level.

In such a worrying scenario, the presence of a voice calling for dialogue and moderation has two advantages for Tehran. First, it reduces the risk for Iran to become a sort of "pariah state" in a region where the balances of power are very fluid and are in this very moment undergoing a reconfiguration. The role of the president is second to the supreme leader in the realm of foreign policy. But still, former presidents Khatami and Rafsanjani were able to do much for improving the image of Iran at the international level and its diplomatic ties with the West and Saudi Arabia. Rowhani was part of that establishment as chief negotiator for the nuclear issue during Khatami’s second mandate, and he will likely be an obstacle to the plans of Iran’s regional competitors to exclude Tehran from the regional picture.

The second reason Rowhani’s presence will benefit the Islamic Republic in terms of foreign affairs is Rowhani’s experience as nuclear negotiator. He was able to avoid tough sanctions against Iran in 2003, at the time of the U.S. attack on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and because of his position, he had to mediate among political factions and above all between Khamenei, Khatami, and Rafsanjani. Rowhani and Khamenei can count on a long collaboration, which was successful as it allowed Iran to keep its nuclear program, although to a temporary halt, and prevented major negative moves against the Islamic Republic.

Finally, if Iran succeeds in presenting itself as a great, moderate, and rational democracy, it will be able to recover from the bad image it has suffered from in the last years. This is particularly meaningful now, as one of Iran’s most powerful competitors for regional hegemony, Turkey, is going under harsh criticism for the repression against protesters in Taksim Square, an event which has generated major consensus on "Erdogan’s increasing authoritarian style" on the part of experts and observers.

5. A military dictatorship. Rowhani’s victory also disavowed one of the recurring "truths" about Iran becoming a military dictatorship headed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). This claim is misleading for two reasons.

First, the IRGC is loyal to the supreme leader and to the system, and it does not constitute any independent "section" or "cell" with autonomous goals. It views its mission as consistent with the interest of the system, which is defined by the constitution. Its loyalty to the supreme leader, however, does not mean that the IRGC cannot display a degree of pluralism. It is well-known that many members of the IRGC voted for Khatami in 1997, and as for the electoral race on Friday, the IRGC displayed a certain independence of thought as for the candidate to support. Beyond many endorsing Saeed Jalili, the supreme leader’s protégé, others have chosen either Tehran’s current mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, an IRGC retired brigadier general, former commander of the IRGC air force, and former commander of the national police, or Mohsen Rezaei, a retired major general, former IRGC chief from 1981to 1997 and current secretary-general of the Expediency Discernment Council.

Second, observers were right in catching the novelty of Ahmadinejad’s and Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei’s (chief of Ahmadinejad’s staff and disqualified candidate at the last presidential election) hostility to the religious establishment when it comes to the management of power. Ahmadinejad’s well-known remarks about the imminent return of the Mahdi were undoubtedly subversive and threatening for Khamenei’s position. Nevertheless, the position of some of the most prominent clerical personalities in Iran, such as Khatami and Rafsanjani, proved to be determining for the elections. In sum, the Iranian clergy seems to hold a stable grip on his share of power and political credibility, and their ouster from the political life because of "lay people" and the military seems not to be an option for the moment.

6. The future of the velayat-e faqih. Supreme Leader Khamenei is 73 and probably looking into the future of the velayat-e faqih, the religious principle that justifies the office of the supreme leader from a doctrinal point of view. The leadership is a life-long office, but Khamenei could be willing to give up his position in few years. The president has an important say on who should take on the office, and back in 1989, Rafsanjani (who was the president then) strongly supported Khamenei’s nomination as vali or leader. It could be that in the next few years, Rafsanjani will ask Khamenei to return the favor.

In that context, it will be interesting to look to another Ayatollah’s moves, Taqi Mesbah Yazdi, who has never lost an opportunity to demonstrate his loyalty to Khamenei and established a political group of reference, the Jehbe Paydari, after it turned away from Ahmadinejad. Mesbah Yazdi is considered a radical rightist, probably too radical to gather the needed support to be nominated supreme leader, and he also dislikes the republican nature of the Islamic Republic arguing that in the absence of the Hidden Imam, it is up to the clergy to rule, with no need for election or parliament. An alternative scenario is one of a group of clerics acting as a "collective" leader. This option is constitutionally grounded, and is regarded by some experts as the most likely one. In any case, Rowhani and Khamenei’s next moves will clarify the matter, as this presidential term is likely to be quite determining in this respect.

In conclusion, the next years to come are crucial because the new president and the next leader will have to deal with sanctions and consequently with the relationship between Iran and the United States. Rowhani is a man of the system, although he wants to improve Iran’s diplomatic relations with the international community; and alike will be the next leader of course. For the moment, Rowhani’s election seems to be a positive indicator for the future, although there are still many uncertain points. Beyond this, there are some issues that are not part of the picture for the moment but will soon reemerge as urgent matters such as Ahmadinejad and Mashaei’s future. Although they have been crucial political personalities in the last decade, it seems however that the elite circle surrounding and supporting them has significantly shrunk and therefore it is not yet clear what is awaiting them.

Paola Rivetti is a post-doctoral fellow at the School of Law and Government, Dublin City University, Ireland.