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Why Iran's New President Matters: Don't Miss the Fifty Shades of Purple

More than 35 million people participated in a crucial election to replace President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is constitutionally barred from running for a third consecutive term. Despite the mainstream media's constant, and misguided, emphasis on how the election was dominated by a narrow clique of arch-conservatives, instead it was the sole moderate-reformist candidate Hassan Rowhani, who has openly pledged for better external relations and more liberal policies at home, that secured an outright victory in the June 10 elections.

Caught in the midst of a deepening economic crisis, with massive currency depreciation feeding into a cycle of stagflation, the economy is yet again at the center of this year's elections, with all candidates feverishly promising a new direction in the country's economic management. Nevertheless, the shadow of the Iranian nuclear program looms ever-larger on the initially stale contest.

Notwithstanding criticisms over the destabilizing impact of President Ahmadinejad's expansionary monetary and fiscal policies, it is the unilateral western sanctions against Iran's oil, automobile, transport, and financial sectors -- practially the whole economy -- that has slashed the country's oil exports to its lowest levels in decades, devalued the Iranian rial by about 70 percent, and brought a supposedly booming, oil-driven economy to the brink of depression. For Washington and its allies, it is also the nuclear issue that has gravitated their attention to the ebbs and flows of Iran's presidential elections.

Never Fails to Surprise

Time and again, the post-revolutionary Iran has managed to pull off delicious surprises, constantly questioning the linear -- and ultimately incorrect -- narrative, so unsurprisingly adopted by the mainstream media, of Iran as a monolithic regime, where politics is supposedly nothing but an elite-dictated charade. Well, this year's election has squarely proved this simplistic narrative utterly wrong, again!

From the reformist (Eslah-Talab) Mohammad Khatami's overwhelming victory in the 1997 presidential elections, easing out the principalist (Oslogara) camp's favored candidate Ali Akbar Nateqh Nouri, to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's shocking defeat of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (a two-time president, and founding father of the revolution) in 2005, to the sudden surge of Mir Hossein Mousavi in the final weeks of the 2009 elections, which was followed by even more shocking post-electoral contestations, one, inevitably, arrives at a central conclusion: That Iran has politics, with multiple factions jostling for the destiny of a proud nation; that the country's democratic aspirations have never been fully-subdued, always finding novel means of self-expression and institutional crystallization; that Iran's society -- and its political system -- mirrors, in varying ways and degrees, a plurality of views, the same way that the 1979 revolution represented a convergence among anti-colonial nationalists, socialist-Islamists, liberal democrats, and conservative Islamists united in the common vision of establishing an independent, republican Iran; and that the elections, especially of the president, still (and always have) matter.

Far from Monolithic

This was highly evident in the third presidential debate focusing on foreign policy -- a battle royal that stirred not only excitement among previously apathetic sections of the society, but also, perhaps even more crucially, exposed the many shades of gray separating even principalist candidates from each other. While the fiery exchanges among reformist-moderates (Aref and Rowhani), independents (Rezaie and Gharazi), and principalists (Haddad-Adel, Ghalibaf, Velayati, and Jalili) was quite expected, it was actually the debate among leading conservatives, specifically the supreme leader's chief foreign policy advisor Ali Akbar Velayati, secretary of the supreme national security council and Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, and Tehran's charismatic mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf that reveals the extent to which top-level decision-making in Iran has to accommodate a rich tapestry of policy positions and personalities.

"You were in charge of the nuclear case for several years, and we haven't taken a single step forward," Velayati told Jalili during the debate, calling for an approach that is less obstinate and geared towards vigorous bargaining. "Diplomacy isn't about toughness or stubbornness." But intent on proving his own revolutionary and management credentials, Ghalibaf responded by saying while Velayati was "drinking coffee" with French leader Francois Mitterrand, he, as a commander during the Iran-Iraq war, was at the receiving end of French weaponry used by Iraqi forces.

The spirited exchanges between Jalili and his predecessor Hassan Rowhani, meanwhile, was long in coming. While Jalili, in defense of his own approach, cited the inflexibility of the world powers (in granting concessions in exchange for tangible curbs on Iran's enrichment rights) as a pretext for greater 'resistance', Rowhani, similar to Velayati, exalted the wisdom of expediency and a more judicious negotiating strategy that prevents isolation and punitive sanctions albeit without sacrificing Iran's enrichment rights under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

All candidates agreed on securing Iran's enrichment rights, more specifically at the 3-5 percent purity levels, but beyond that there is considerable room for tactical innovation and negotiating reconfigurations -- precisely why it mattered who became the next president.

The Power of the President

Iran's contemporary history also shows that politics never stopped at the ballot box, since every post-war Iranian president, from Rafsanjani to Ahmadinejad, has sought to shape, with unique styles and varying degrees of success, the country in the image of his own worldview -- but with the crucial caveat of having to operate within the confines of the regime, where the Supreme Leader has the final say on all matters of policy and national security.

The president, as the head of the government, doesn't only enjoy the cachet of tens of millions of votes as a concrete expression of his political mandate, under a partly republican system, but also has a significant amount of institutional capacity to introduce consequential policies in the realm of economics, culture, and politics.

For this reason, the president can, both theoretically and in practice, build a large constituency for his policy vision, despite constitutionally lacking the final say on matters of national security and foreign policy. The complexities of governing a resource-rich, industrializing, populous and strategically vital country like Iran means that the process of decision-making is largely consociational, whereby the top political leader stirs consensus-building among varying groups with diverse persuasions jostling for power and influence. In short, you don't have a sole decision-maker in the system, although the supreme leader has the final say.

Therefore, the new Iranian president can inject both a new style as well as a new approach into the nuclear negotiations, although it has to be cleared by the supreme leader. Absent a divisive figure like Ahmadinejad, and contentious post-electoral developments, the new Iranian president can contribute to the shaping and re-orientation of the nuclear policy -- the pivot of Iran's foreign policy and a crucial determinant of Iran's economic trajectory.

What explains this (seemingly unusual) political dynamic is the fact that Iran's political system is by design dualistic: It rests on the two pillars of Islamism, the rule of the jurist-consult, and republicanism, anchored by constitutional provisions guaranteeing fundamental civil liberties and the election of top government leaders. In this sense, Iran's political system arguably falls outside the minimalist vs. maximalist definitions of democracy, which more or less presuppose a secular order; instead, the post-revolutionary regime tries to fuse theocratic leadership with popular sovereignty. The history of the Islamic Republic of Iran is largely shaped by the mutually constitutive and often contentious relationship between the two pillars.

Still Alive and Kicking

The decision of Rafsanjani, fully supported by Khatami, to contest this year's elections was a clear signal of the willingness of those outside the principalist circles to have a say in the direction of the country -- and the sense of urgency felt by veteran politicians to maximize whatever opening within the confines of the system.

The disqualification of Rafsanjani by the Guardian Council was shocking, but his decision to not contest the decision and maintain influence within Iran's clerical and political establishment underscored the degree to which the moderates wish to rebuild an architecture of reform within state institutions and the disparate levers of policy-making.

Despite scores of commentaries on how Iran has -- especially since 2009 -- become a monolithic regime, dominated by a narrow circle of conservatives, recent weeks have displayed the ability of the reformist-moderate camp to not only contest power, but also organize around a common vision and leadership. After a long series of consultations, grass roots mobilization, and committee discussions, Khatami decided to throw his weight behind Rowhani and convince the sole reformist candidate, the Stanford-educated Mohammad Reza Aref, to step aside.

Then came Rafsanjani's full-fledged support for Rowhani, effectively uniting the moderates and reformist camps. And this has energized swathes of disgruntled middle classes and cosmopolitan Iranians to ponder electoral participation -- which they eventually did in great numbers.

Rowhani's victory not only proves the influential role of former presidents, whose endorsements rallied the youth and middle classes behind the moderate candidate, but also the fact that within Iran's unpredictable politics there is so much room for good surprises -- and this year's elections underscore the dynamic yearning of Iran's masses for liberal reform, economic recovery, and constructive relations with the outside world. Now, it is time for the West to reciprocate, beginning with seriously considering lifting punitive, collective sanctions against the Iranian people as to shake up the deadlocked nuclear negotiations .

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