Shadow Government

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Iranian Election Reflections (Part 1)

Author’s note: I’ve been sidetracked by some other projects, but wanted to offer some belated thoughts on the recent presidential election in Iran. Today I’ll discuss the balloting’s "surprise" result and review a couple of theories that observers have put forward to explain the outcome and its likely consequences for Iranian policy. In part 2, ...

By , a senior fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America and a former national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney.
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

Author's note: I've been sidetracked by some other projects, but wanted to offer some belated thoughts on the recent presidential election in Iran. Today I'll discuss the balloting's "surprise" result and review a couple of theories that observers have put forward to explain the outcome and its likely consequences for Iranian policy. In part 2, I'll provide my own postmortem of what happened and suggest that the election in no small part can be interpreted as a fairly significant popular repudiation of Iran's current regime. Finally, in my last post, I'll identify what I think are a few of the more important implications for U.S. policy.

For me, perhaps the most striking thing about Iran's presidential election was that almost no one predicted the result -- an overwhelming first-round victory for Hasan Rouhani, the candidate whose positions on both domestic and international issues appeared least in line with those of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Indeed, the bulk of expert opinion seemed to suggest quite the opposite outcome: an "engineered" ballot; the almost certain election of one of a handful of candidates from the so-called "principlist" camp, all reliably loyal to Khamenei's hard-line policies; and the final consolidation of the increasingly militarized dictatorship that the supreme leader has been systematically fashioning in recent years with his followers from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

Alas, Iranian voters seem to have confounded almost everyone. For my money, the people in charge of the Washington Post's editorial page are among the smartest writers around on national security. But two days before Iran's election, they flatly declared that Rouhani, "who has emerged as the default candidate of Iran's reformists, will not be allowed to win." Most other analysts were more careful to include some hedging language in their forecasts, but the bottom line of their assessments pointed overwhelmingly in the same direction.

Author’s note: I’ve been sidetracked by some other projects, but wanted to offer some belated thoughts on the recent presidential election in Iran. Today I’ll discuss the balloting’s "surprise" result and review a couple of theories that observers have put forward to explain the outcome and its likely consequences for Iranian policy. In part 2, I’ll provide my own postmortem of what happened and suggest that the election in no small part can be interpreted as a fairly significant popular repudiation of Iran’s current regime. Finally, in my last post, I’ll identify what I think are a few of the more important implications for U.S. policy.

For me, perhaps the most striking thing about Iran’s presidential election was that almost no one predicted the result — an overwhelming first-round victory for Hasan Rouhani, the candidate whose positions on both domestic and international issues appeared least in line with those of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Indeed, the bulk of expert opinion seemed to suggest quite the opposite outcome: an "engineered" ballot; the almost certain election of one of a handful of candidates from the so-called "principlist" camp, all reliably loyal to Khamenei’s hard-line policies; and the final consolidation of the increasingly militarized dictatorship that the supreme leader has been systematically fashioning in recent years with his followers from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

Alas, Iranian voters seem to have confounded almost everyone. For my money, the people in charge of the Washington Post‘s editorial page are among the smartest writers around on national security. But two days before Iran’s election, they flatly declared that Rouhani, "who has emerged as the default candidate of Iran’s reformists, will not be allowed to win." Most other analysts were more careful to include some hedging language in their forecasts, but the bottom line of their assessments pointed overwhelmingly in the same direction.

And they were in strikingly good company. As Haaretz declared in the days following the election, neither Israeli military intelligence nor the Mossad gave Israel’s leaders "even a hint" that the principlist camp associated with Khamenei would be so thoroughly trounced. Haaretz went on to note — quite correctly, based on my own anecdotal soundings — that "the predictions of the intelligence services in other Western countries weren’t any more accurate."

In the wake of Rouhani’s victory, a flurry of post hoc explanations flooded forth. Some suggested that Khamenei had indeed fooled everyone — that, in fact, he had not merely acceded to Rouhani’s triumph, but quite brilliantly orchestrated it. In this view, the supreme leader well understood that Rouhani’s brand of pragmatism was just what the doctor had ordered at this perilous moment for the Islamic Republic. A long-standing devotee of the regime, Rouhani’s more accommodating style could all at once replenish the regime’s growing legitimacy deficit at home, defang opposition to Iran’s nuclear program abroad, and secure much-needed relief from international sanctions — all while preserving Iran’s option to go for a bomb down the road. The ultimate wolf in sheep’s clothing, in other words.

As evidence for this theory, its supporters pointed to the fact that Khamenei had not compelled Rouhani’s five opponents in the race to coalesce behind a single candidate, thereby allowing the conservative vote to fracture. Furthermore, rather than authorizing the relatively minor amounts of vote rigging that would have been required to drop Rouhani’s vote below 50 percent and force a head-to-head runoff with the second-place finisher, Khamenei permitted Rouhani to win outright with just over 50 percent.

An alternative view acknowledged, at least implicitly, that the election had probably not gone exactly as Khamenei might have scripted. Rouhani had not seemed to be the preferred candidate of either the supreme leader or his acolytes in the IRGC. (Indeed, the head of the IRGC’s elite Quds Force, Gen. Qassem Suleimani — not infrequently referred to as the second-most powerful person in Iran — was known to have endorsed Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the mayor of Tehran and an IRGC veteran.) In this telling, the powers-that-be were largely caught off guard by two factors: first, the unexpected ability of Rouhani — a longtime regime insider — to appeal to the millions of Iranians still disaffected by 2009’s disputed election; and second, by the unprecedented discipline Iran’s reformers demonstrated in convincing one of their own, Mohammad Reza Aref, to end his candidacy in the campaign’s final days and unite behind Rouhani. By the time the full measure of Rouhani’s popular surge became apparent, it was largely too late to stop without some degree of electoral chicanery. Rather than risk a repeat of the mass demonstrations that so dangerously rocked the regime four years ago, Khamenei and the Guard Corps decided out of an abundance of caution that the lesser danger was to allow Rouhani’s victory to play out.

Most analysts concurred that this in all likelihood represented no particular gamble. After all, Rouhani was one of only eight candidates (out of almost 700 applicants) qualified to run by Khamenei’s Guardian Council precisely because he was viewed as posing no threat to the regime. Quite the contrary. After all, he had been by the side of the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in his Parisian exile when the revolution against the shah was still but a twinkle in the aging theocrat’s eye. Ever since, Rouhani had been a fixture of the regime’s establishment, a significant player on all major security issues from his perch on the Supreme National Security Council — first as its presiding officer for more than 15 years and more recently as the personal representative of the supreme leader himself. From there, he’d allegedly signed off on some of the regime’s worst deeds: the assassination of dissidents in Europe, the 1994 terrorist attack on a Jewish cultural center in Argentina, the brutal crackdown on student protests in 1999.

Perhaps most famously, Rouhani served as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005 — a tenure that he would later boast was most distinguished by its masterful manipulation of diplomacy to deceive and divide the West, hold international sanctions at bay, and buy the Iranian nuclear program much-needed time and space to continue building out its infrastructure.

Finally, it must be said, that when the regime’s security apparat was busy cracking heads after the 2009 election and working overtime the past four years to crush the Green Movement and imprison its leadership, Rouhani didn’t raise a peep as far as anyone can tell. Hardly a democratic reformer he — at least not judging by the entirety of his more than 30-year career leading up to this June’s election.

And if that lengthy pedigree of fealty to the regime’s interests weren’t enough, most experts were quick to remind of the most defining characteristic of today’s Islamic Republic: the near-total domination of the country’s key institutions of power by the supreme leader and his closest confidants in the Revolutionary Guard, including the final word on all major issues of national security — first and foremost those having to do with the nuclear file, relations with the United States, and support for key allies like Hezbollah and Syria. Previous presidents who had tried to draw too far outside the permissible lines — from the charismatic reformist Mohammad Khatami to the populist ideologue Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — had all eventually been reined in and cut down to size. Hard, if not impossible, to imagine, then, that a pragmatic conservative like Rouhani, with a lifetime of service to the system of velayat-e faqih (rule of the supreme leader), would ever attempt to go maverick. And even if he were so inclined, there’s very little reason to believe that he could ever succeed.

John Hannah is a senior fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America and a former national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney.

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