A Road Map of Iranian Election Politics: What Led to Rouhani's Victory?

The June 14 Iranian presidential election that resulted in Hassan Rouhani's victory astonished many observers. Many feared that this vote would end in the same chaos as the 2009 election, ensuring a pre-determined candidate's victory. But this time around, there was no election fraud. And after the ballots were counted, a moderate conservative -- who had suddenly embraced a progressive agenda, drawing the support of millions disenchanted with the government's economic, social, cultural, and foreign policies -- emerged as the winner.

How can we make sense of Rouhani's victory, the election itself, and the current alignment of the country's political forces, while also understanding the position of the country's powerful Supreme Leader?

An Election, But How Free?

Iran's leaders and many analysts and public figures in the West, including both Americans and Iranian-Americans, might argue this recent election was free. Their embrace of this election as a return of Iranian democracy echoes former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who called the vote "one of the most democratic" elections in the world.

The truth is that calling this election "free" disregards all the machinations and state meddling that preceded the vote itself. All eight candidates were approved by the Guardian Council on condition of their commitment to Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

The reality of running for executive in Iran is that opposition to or criticism of one man, the Supreme Leader, can disqualify a candidate from running. The eight approved men were not representatives of the best and the most deserving citizens of the country. Rather they were all the Leader's appointees, or from the ranks of his advisers, relatives, or long-time friends. It would be more accurate to say that the election was held democratically among eight candidates hand-picked by Iran's Supreme Leader.
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The only credit due to the Islamic Republic is that within the limited choices it made available to its people, there was no fraud. No compliments and admiration are due to Islamic Republic of Iran for not cheating, stealing people's votes, and betraying the trust of those who accepted this faulty, selective, discriminatory, and undemocratic election for a chance to create a modicum of change.

Elections Engineering

In the months before the vote, Iranian politicians from across the spectrum began warning of "election engineering," concerned over the myriad ways a vote can be tainted. The lazy wisdom holds because unlike in 2009, there was no explicit fraud in the counting of ballots, this election was not engineered. But again this overlooks the tight and total control the state exerts over the process. The process of selecting candidates, with the Supreme Leader's approval and vetting by the Guardian Council, whose members are again largely appointed by the Supreme Leader, renders every election to some extent "engineered," if that term is meant to describe a process that is controlled and shaped in advance.

But trying to shape the results of an election does not necessarily mean that its outcome proceeds exactly as planned. One miscalculation can lead to unsatisfactory results.

The make-up of the eight vetted candidates - comprised of six conservatives, one moderate, and one reformist - seemed destined to pave the way for one of the six conservatives to succeed. After the fiasco of 2009 election, the Iranian regime could no longer hold an election with conservative candidates alone, because such a ballot would discourage the majority of society from participating in the election at all, and this, in turn, would affect the acceptance and legitimacy of the future cabinet.

Allowing two minor reformist and moderate candidates could change that dynamic. Rouhani's victory, if not initially intended by Iran's senior leadership, resulted from miscalculations and ignorance about crucial elements that played a big role in the election, shifting the weight in the power balance of different factions.

The final ballot seemed, despite the surprise outcome, fairly safe from highly disruptive turns of events. Allowing Rafsanajni to contest, for example, might have introduced too many unpredictable variables. A source with close knowledge of events said that during the Guardian Council meeting to review Rafsanjani's qualification for candidacy, the minister of intelligence appeared and convinced members to bar him from running. The minister arrived alongside various deputies and Revolutionary Guards commanders, according to this source.

Why would the minister and the IRGC commander meddle? Because according to surveys conducted by the regime, Rafsanjani had a very good chance of winning the 2013 election and defeating the conservatives.

Though disqualifying Rafsanjani cost the Supreme Leader dearly and confirmed the existence of a deep rift between these two seasoned and influential figures, those who worked to disqualify him obviously thought it was worth it.

Rafsanjani's disqualification cost him the president's chair, but it bolstered his popular image and created a palpable dissatisfaction among many political and social activists, and even among ordinary citizens. It began to appear that some of his supporters, including a majority of reformists, had lost their interest in the tightly controlled election process, and might boycott the election, or at least not support any of the candidates, paving the way for the victory of one of the conservative candidates.

If the establishment was taken by surprise in 2009 when candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi defied the vote's outcome, 2013 seemed designed to not leave any room for such surprises. But what seems evident is that barring Rafsanjani became an event in itself, widely discussed by Iranian politicos and ordinary citizens alike. To reject the candidacy of a two-term former president, one who was viewed by many as perfectly positioned to reverse the failing economy, created its own wave of resentment and unease. His elimination may be responsible for the feelings of indignation that, given the repressive, police state atmosphere of recent years, could have only found an opportunity for expression at the polls.

The Calculation Errors of the Conservatives

With Rafsanjani blocked from running, reformist candidate Mohammad Aref, who served as vice president under Mohammad Khatami, hit the ground running, attracting some of the reformist voter base and the urban middle class. He managed this punchy start despite never having been a prominent reformist figure and lacking in charisma. During the debates his pleasant demeanor and his firm stance on providing solutions for the country's mounting economic problems, all reflecting his reputation as a strong technocrat, expanded his appeal even further.

On the other hand, Hassan Rouhani was neither a reformist nor an experienced manager during his three decades of presence at the upper echelons of state power. A politician who had always worked under Rafsanjani, whose 1999 denunciation of student protests at Tehran University students and inaction and silence vis-à-vis the four-year-long suppression of reformists and the house arrest of their leaders had placed him in a negative light, Rouhani stepped out with slogans that lured millions of dissatisfied voters. He spoke of political, civil, and social rights, the resuscitation of Iran's foreign policy, and efforts to lift the sanctions.

During the debates, broadcast on official state television, Rouhani defended the performances of former presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami--both considered reformists by today's standards. That very same official state television was precisely where those two former presidents had been targets of various attacks over the past four years, to the point where even mentioning their names, particularly Khatami's name, had become taboo. With such a high-risk approach (in the event that he had not been elected), Rouhani in effect sent Rafsanjani and Khatami supporters a signal, letting them know that despite his deep conservative roots, he was looking elsewhere for votes.

At the same time, the televised debates gave Rouhani a chance to defend his performance as Iran's chief nuclear negotiator under Khatami, and he was able to emphasize that during his time, Iran's nuclear dossier had evaded both sanctions and being dispatched to the U.N. Security Council. Rouhani's definition of the relationship between the country's deep political and social problems with the mismanagement of the team conducting the nuclear negotiations under the direct supervision of the Supreme Leader grabbed the attention of millions of Iranian citizens. For the first time, they were offered a fresh narrative from the regime's about Iran's nuclear plan and its related costs. In Iran's current political atmosphere, showing support for Khatami and Rafsanjani and challenging the nuclear plan led by Saeed Jalili were considered bold and courageous actions.

Rouhani also spoke of citizenship rights, women's rights, freedom of expression, and the release of political prisoners (though he was ambiguous on the latter). All of these subjects that excited the millions of 2009 silent protesters. These slogans portrayed a new image of Rouhani, one that did not match his conservative background, but instead promised a fresh breeze in the current Iranian political climate. But none of these could have created much public enthusiasm for Rouhani had it not been for two other events: just days before the election Aref withdrew, and Khatami, Rafsanjani, and other reformers came out to endorse Rouhani.

Khatami and Rafsanjani Considered Lightweights

What the establishment underestimated crucially -- perhaps the one game-changing miscalculation -- was the extent of the "embers beneath the ashes" that lingered after the 2009 post-election protests, penetrating various dissatisfied layers of society. This silent energy was represented on one end by Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi and on the other by Mohammad Khatami. Whichever presidential candidate they chose to support would have changed the election equation.

Iran's authorities seemed confident that the intense, sustained four-year suppression of the country's opposition, the Green movement, had crushed interest in any dissent. But it turned out that just mentioning the names of Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi was enough to raise thousands to their feet, yelling and crying.

Rouhani showed that he is fully aware of this energetic capacity that could fill his campaign gatherings and create passion and enthusiasm on the streets and on social networks. I doubt it was just a coincidence that Rouhani started wearing clerical garb similar to Mohammad Khatami's, smiling, and even moving like the popular former president. When Rouhani approached the demands of this segment of society, the fire hiding beneath the embers sparked to life.

Meanwhile, the conservatives had very much hoped that from among their four candidates three would step aside in favor of a single candidate. Instead they witnessed each candidate's refusal to withdraw in favor of another, exposing the growing rifts in the conservative camp. They were also wholly unprepared for the reformists' cutting Mohammad Reza Aref--a bona fide reformist--loose in favor of a moderate conservative. Although Rouhani had created a palpable excitement among the silent protesters, he was considered close to Hashemi Rafsanjani and had no record of seeking domestic reforms.

The conservatives' assumption that the reformists would not strategise to unify their vote was born out by the recent past. In 2005 the reformists were unable to choose between Mostafa Moeen and Mehdi Karroubi, and their both running effectively led to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hashemi Rafsanjani running against each other in the second round of the presidential election. In 2009 Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi also refused to form a coalition. Their close positions on many issues split the votes of moderate Iranians, whereas a coalition could have created bigger social pressure for a victory.

Given this background, Aref's swift exit, the support for Rouhani from major reformist groups (and specifically from Rafsanjani and Khatami), plus Rouhani's reformist, rights-centered, peaceful agenda, created momentum among different layers of voters far surpassing Rouhani's own capacity and popularity.

The Conservative Rift

Just as Rouhani was distancing himself from the conservatives, who used every opportunity to draw closer to the Supreme Leader, the animosity between the conservative candidates and serious differences over key issues kept them from forming a coalition.

Before this election it was widely conceived that the Supreme Leader had immense power over the political conduct and decisions of conservatives, who outwardly project themselves as dedicated to him. Very few imagined that the top foreign affairs advisor to the Leader (Ali Akbar Velayati), the Secretary of the National Security Council, the chief nuclear negotiator (Saeed Jalili), the Chief Commander of the IRGC for 16 years (Mohsen Rezaei), and the former Chief of Police and current Tehran Mayor (Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf) not only would not coalesce but would actually display major fissures amongst their ranks. During televised debates they actually criticized state policies for which Khamenei is responsible, alienating their supporters and propelling them in search of alternatives.

The debates confirmed the perception that Saeed Jalili was the Leader's favourite. The nuclear negotiator self-consciously used rhetoric mirroring Khamanei's, provoking the irritation and ire of his fellow conservatives. Perhaps it was outrageous to Velayati, a senior figure and veteran foreign minister, to see a younger man who was once a low-level clerk at the Ministry under his management be preferred over him. Velayati shined in the debates, going all out to promote his own wisdom and experience and pinpoint Jalili's weaknesses. In the third debate, before the eyes of millions, Velayati directly challenged Jalili's achievements during his tenure as chief nuclear negotiator.

Mohsen Rezaei and Hassan Rouhani also joined forces to paint a different picture of the Supreme Leader's supposed favorite, portraying his stance on key issues as the root cause of Iran's present difficulties. Their criticism of Jaili for inviting international sanctions and the risk of a potential military attack, and of Qalibaf's militaristic approach to domestic issues appeared to millions of people as direct criticism of the Supreme Leader.

Most striking of all, the candidates' concerted attack on Jalili and his handling of Iran's nuclear diplomacy revealed a rift at the highest levels of the system, a security policy that is ultimately controlled by the supreme leader. The televised debates aired this laundry in public. Jalili's presence indeed created an opening for these candidates, all of them senior officials closely connected to the supreme leader, to register their disapproval of the path he has adopted for the nuclear program. Each repeated that with more skillful diplomacy, Iran's present economic crisis and political isolation could have been avoided.

After these debates, my own notion that the Leader's closest supporters were a uniform and obedient group without any opinions of their own evaporated. Instead I realized that there is serious dissatisfaction even within the top circles of leadership in Iran, which nobody dares reveal, lest they be forced to pay the price.

The Lonely Leader and the Nightmare of Legitimacy

Even if we were unaware of the rift between the Supreme Leader and those around him, and the differences that exist about how to manage the country, Ali Khamenei himself probably knew that ever since he said his "views were closer to views of the President [Mahmoud Ahmadinejad]," he has alienated many in his inner circle. When he sent hundreds of thousands of 2009 election protesters home through intimidating or imprisoning them, or when he decided to put the two reformist leaders under house arrest, and at a June 2009 Friday Prayer ceremony took responsibility for the street confrontations that left dozens of citizens injured and dead, he created a new image for himself in the eyes of most Iranians. In the past four years that image engendered the slogan, "Death to the Dictaor." That refrained was not chanted en masse in the celebrations that followed Rouhani's victory, but what took its place -- "Dictator, Dictator! Thank you, thank you!" -- retained the core thought.

It is probably not an exaggeration to say that the day the IAEA Governing Board sent Iran's nuclear program dossier, to the UN Security Council, triggering a chain of sanctions against the Iranian people and exposing them to a potential military attack, many feared and doubted in Khamenei's ability to oversee the country. Each of these issues can be a constant nightmare for any healthy and shrewd leader. It is in reaction to such nightmares, serious gaps, a polarized society, dissident prisoners, and the echo of "Death to the Dictator" that the Leader uses every opportunity to re-legitimize himself and his regime.

A few days before the elections, Ali Khamenei said that anyone who voted was voting for the Islamic Republic. Were he not facing this nightmare, he would not have felt the need to tie the election to the legitimacy of the regime. He is the manifestation of the famous phrase by Shakespeare, "The lady doth protest too much, methinks." Although through his security forces and tools of suppression Khamenei appears very powerful and in control, he himself described his lack of confidence and his need for acceptance in the most powerful manner during his speech at an election polling station.

Quoting an official from the US National Security Agency, who had questioned the legitimacy of elections in Iran, Ali Khamenei responded: "To hell with you!" Really, where in the world have you heard of the leader of a country holding elections using the moment he casts his vote to respond to a much lower-level politician of another country, showing how hurt he was by some statement?

Still dealing with the remnants of the bloody 2009 election and its aftershocks and fear of an imminent resumption of street protests, for the Islamic Republic of Iran there could have been no higher cost than another disputed election. That could bring "Death to the Dictator" slogans back to Tehran streets, further exposing the regime to internal and external crises.

With such a nightmare about his own legitimacy and that of the system, and the very high price he paid for the previous election, the only path Khamenei could take to select the next president was to make an intelligent choice while trying to create a competitive atmosphere among the candidates. State television played a big role in this. With careful planning of the initial phases, the election would have gone off without a hitch, thereby dismissing any public suspicion of election fraud. Therefore, in the 2013 election engineering, neither fraud nor vote-altering was part of the plan.

The Deadly Opportunity Cost of Repeated Election Fraud

Although the supreme leader doubtlessly would have preferred to see one of the four conservative candidates elected, Rouhani's victory at least has not led to an intensification of the existing crisis. Because those who voted for him represented many of the demands of the 2009 protests, his win is also an opportunity of sort for political reconciliation,repairing the huge rift between the government and the people, particularly after the 2011 house arrests of Mir Hossein Mousavi, Zahra Rahnavard, and Mehdi Karroubi. For four years now, this rift has divided Iran's political, social, and cultural forces, inside and outside the government, in the Qom Seminary, and within Iran's universities.

The most optimistic result of Rouhani's election would be his efforts to control further acceleration of foreign crises arising out of Iran's nuclear dossier and sanctions, its regional interference in Persian Gulf countries and the Levant, as well as efforts to improve human rights and citizens' rights.

Rouhani is extending a chance to the supreme leader in his hour of need, as he faces a crisis of legitimacy at home and the risk of Iran deteriorating from within through increasing poverty, or from without, by threat of foreign attack.

Those who may have sought to predetermine the results of Iran's vote through a process of pre-engineering have failed, and this failure has delivered the surprise residency of Hassan Rouhani. It is worth noting that, deliberately or not, the Islamic Republic of Iran has always had the capacity to correct or repair deep political and social gaps between its rulers and its people during dangerous turning points.

Additionally, despite millions of people's choice to register their objections by boycotting the election, a sizeable number of Iranians chose to use the ballot box as a means of effecting change in their daily lives and conveying their moderate views to the regime. Though this is just the beginning of Hassan Rouhani's road, and considering that his supporters expect a great deal of him, we will have to wait and see how successfully he can respond to these expectations within the constraints of the system and the supreme leader.

Rouhani has a historic opportunity to use the hope that has been budding in society, the privileges he enjoys in his relationships with the two main political factions in the country (conservatives and reformists), and the millions of supporters who are cheering him on, to become a president whom history will judge kindly. We shall have to see how he uses his capacity, his authority, and, of course, the experience he has as a result of three decades inside Iranian power centers.

This piece was initially published on IranWire.com