July 9, 2013 | Foreign Policy

Iranian Election Reflections (Part 2)

Editor's note: This post is the second in a three-part series on Iran's recent presidential election. Click here for the first post and here for the third.

For what it's worth, my own view is that it's hard to see how Hasan Rouhani's landslide victory in Iran's presidential election could have been Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's first choice. From afar, it certainly seemed to represent, at least implicitly, a pretty thorough repudiation of much of what the supreme leader stands for. To take one example, I was struck when Rouhani decided on June 4 to attend the funeral of dissident cleric Ayatollah Jalaleddin Taheri in Isfahan. In doing so, he quite purposefully appeared to snub the annual state-sanctioned ceremony marking the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Islamic Revolution's founder — which all the other candidates attended, as did Khamenei.

In 2002, Taheri quite publicly resigned his position as Khamenei's Friday prayer leader in Isfahan, denouncing the regime's corruption and the revolution's broken promises. And shortly after the 2009 election, he publicly sided with the Green Movement against Khamenei, rejecting President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's re-election as invalid. Reports of Taheri's funeral procession described it as the biggest anti-regime demonstration in several years. With Rouhani looking on, tens of thousands were heard resurrecting the 2009 chant of “Death to the Dictator” (Khamenei). No less prominent were calls for the release from house arrest of Green Movement leaders and 2009 presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi.

Indeed, the demand that the regime free Mousavi and Karroubi became somewhat standard fare at Rouhani's campaign events — so much so that at one point several members of his staff were briefly arrested. Later, as his campaign picked up energy, implicit threats circulated in pro-regime media that the Guardian Council was contemplating terminating Rouhani's candidacy — allegedly for revealing classified nuclear information during the final presidential debate, but also because of the pro-Green Movement sloganeering that had come to characterize his rallies.

In the aftermath of Rouhani's win, jubilant crowds shouted “Mousavi, Mousavi, congratulations on your victory.” And in a twist on their more familiar chant calling for Khamenei's earthly demise, the post-election revelers much more charitably called out “Thank you, Dictator” for allowing their votes to be counted — in stark contrast with the wide-scale fraud they'd experienced in 2009. A backhanded compliment, if I ever heard one. I suppose that listening to all that, Khamenei might have somehow deluded himself into believing that his regime's post-2009 breach with the Iranian people was somehow being healed. But I doubt it.

Indeed, if anyone appeared to be strengthened by Rouhani's success, it was those widely viewed as Khamenei's chief political rivals whom he'd spent much of the past four years attempting to marginalize and eliminate: Mousavi and Karroubi, certainly, but also the former presidents of Iran, Mohammad Khatami and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. The latter two were among the Green Movement's most well-known sympathizers in 2009, and both paid a price for their opposition. Khatami had been barred from traveling abroad and was allegedly warned by Khamenei's minions not to run for president in 2013. Rafsanjani, of course — one of the revolution's founding fathers — attempted at the last minute to throw his hat in the ring, but was unceremoniously humiliated by the Guardian Council, which disqualified him on the specious grounds of being too old. Two of his children had even been arrested for their activities in support of the Green Movement. Hard-liners loyal to Khamenei regularly lumped Rafsanjani and Khatami in with Mousavi and Karroubi as leaders of the forces of “sedition” attempting to undermine and weaken the revolution.

Consigned to seeming irrelevance, Khatami and Rafsanjani refused to go quietly. Instead, they fought back. They were the prime movers behind the decision to have Mohammad Reza Aref — the only other alleged moderate in the race — withdraw his candidacy in the campaign's last week. They then issued very public endorsements of Rouhani, urging all Iranians to unite behind him. Moreover, while it's true that Rouhani has apparently retained a very cordial relationship with Khamenei throughout his career, he's widely known to have been particularly close to Rafsanjani — a Rafsanjani man, as it were. Given the totality of these circumstances and the prominent symbolic role that Mousavi and Karroubi clearly played in the election, it's difficult to argue that the outcome wasn't an important boost for precisely those leaders whom most analysts, at least prior to the vote, would have put at the top of the regime's hit list — and, correspondingly, a slap of sorts at Khamenei. Rather than drive the final stake through the heart of the Green Movement, the election arguably ended up infusing it with a burst of new energy. Again, hard to see how Khamenei would have viewed that as the outcome best serving his interests.

It also has to be said that on substantive issues, the hard-line policies of resistance so closely associated with Khamenei took a serious beating in the election. Ten days before the ballot, at the ceremony marking Ayatollah Khomeini's death that Rouhani so conspicuously dissed, Khamenei delivered a very tough speech that harshly attacked those suggesting that a new approach was needed on the nuclear question: “Some have this wrong analysis that we should make concessions to the enemy in order to lighten the anger they have against us,” the supreme leader warned. “In fact, they prefer the enemy's interests to the interests of the nation. This is wrong.”

Despite that veiled accusation of treason, Rouhani was pretty clear throughout his campaign: International sanctions and isolation are inflicting enormous hardship on the Iranian people and have resulted directly from the dogmatic, unyielding positions pursued by Khamenei's chief nuclear negotiator and one of Rouhani's main opponents in the campaign, Saeed Jalili. Without attacking the supreme leader directly, the implication seemed unavoidable that Iran's nuclear policies over the past several years — which everyone knows to have been firmly under Khamenei's control — have been a catastrophe for the Iranian people. Rouhani argued that a major change in approach is required, one that takes a page from his old diplomatic playbook by adopting a tone of moderation rather than extremism, exhibiting greater flexibility and transparency, and making a concerted effort to deal more constructively with Iran's main antagonists, especially the United States.

To some significant extent then, the election could arguably be understood as a referendum of sorts on Khamenei's hard-line positions. And to the degree that was true, the supreme leader lost — and badly. As Iran scholar Mehdi Khalaji has written, the unambiguous message delivered by Rouhani's supporters is they “want a better economy and integration into the international community more than they want nuclear glory.”

John Hannah is a contributor to Foreign Policy's Shadow Government blog and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Read part one here and part three here.

Read in Foreign Policy


Iran Iran Human Rights Iran Sanctions