The election, by a clear majority, of cleric Hassan Rouhani as Iran's new president on 15 June 2013 has secured for Supreme Leader Sayed Ali Khamenei the most
moderate of candidates. Rouhani's landslide victory, his endorsement by reformist
leaders barred from running, and the high voter turnout, all signaled the depth of
discontent and desire for change among the majority of voters. In his inaugural press
conference, President-elect Rouhani promised a path of moderation and offered a
conciliatory approach with the West.
Supreme Leader Khamenei's prime goal in the election was to have a high voter
turnout that would lend it legitimacy, while the fervor of the campaign suggested
that the slate of candidates was geared towards a conservative and loyalist victory.
In urging voters to go to the polls, Khamenei -- the ultimate authority in Iran -- made
clear that turnout was more important to him than which of the six candidates
would emerge victorious. In so doing, he sought to avert a repeat of the popular
uprising of 2009 that was driven by widespread belief of a fraudulent election.
Campaigning was initially dominated by the hardline rhetoric of Saeed Jalili, a
devoted Khamenei acolyte and Iran's nuclear negotiator, whose electoral
program, based on a hard line in nuclear talks with Western powers and vague
Islamic solutions to the country's economic woes, effectively promised to reinforce
Iran's international isolation. A closer look at the slate of candidates suggests
however that Iranians were in fact offered a choice of varying degrees of change --
and the candidate with the greatest promise of reform emerged on top.
In many ways, Jalili's role in the election campaign may well have been that of a
scarecrow -- the man whose proposed policies would be frightening enough to
persuade voters who may otherwise have boycotted the election to go to the polls,
just to prevent him from winning.
Former foreign minister and Khamenei foreign policy adviser Ali Akbar Velayati
held out the prospect of a president with significant international exposure who
chided Jalili for defining diplomacy as being tough and stubborn rather than as a
process of give-and-take. Velayati effectively blamed Jalili for the hardening of
sanctions designed to persuade Iran to compromise on its nuclear program. He
also suggested that he would roll back to some degree the role of the Revolutionary
Guards in public life by calling for an end to political interference in sports.
Similarly, Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, a former Revolutionary Guard
air force commander, who emerged a far second in the election, is widely believed
by militant conservatives to be a closet technocrat. Qalibaf campaigned on the
platform of respect for those imprisoned for their political beliefs. As a mayor he
reformed public service and introduced budget transparency despite being an
outspoken critic of the reform movement and social liberalization.
In short, Khamenei may well have engineered this election to ensure that Iran's next
president and the Islamic republic's face to the outside world would embody some
degree of change away from the provocative foreign policy and devastating economic
populism of outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with whom the supreme
leader was increasingly at odds.
The challenge now for Rouhani, a former nuclear negotiator and national security
adviser, is to demonstrate amid high public expectations that he will be able to
bring about change. Reducing economic hardship that has sent inflation and
unemployment spiraling entails negotiating a deal with Western powers that
ensures Iran's right to enrich uranium while assuring the international community
that its intentions are exclusively non-military. It also means reversing
Ahmadinejad's policy of handing out cash to the poor and ignoring budgetary
Further, it suggests a loosening of security that in Ahmadinejad's last year in
office had become omnipresent with a sharp increase in the numbers of journalists
imprisoned and a crackdown on access to the Internet. The country will be
watching to see if Rouhani will be allowed to loosen the tight grip on society and
release political prisoners.
High expectations on Rouhani's first year in office could well be compounded by the
combustible combination of widespread discontent and soccer fervor if Iran
qualifies for the 2014 World Cup this week (June 18) when it plays a decisive match
against South Korea. Celebrations of a 1997 World Cup qualifier sparked protests
barely a month after reformist Mohammad Khatami took office as president. Fans
chanted twice within a matter of months "Death to the Mullahs" while thousands of
women stormed Tehran's Azadi stadium.
A soccer defeat four years later prompted protests against a backdrop of
disappointment with Khatami's failure to achieve change. Khatami's younger brother,
the then deputy speaker of parliament, warned at the time that the protests reflected
popular frustration with unemployment and low standards of living and a rejection of
the regime's "excessive interference in people's private lives."
Rouhani's victory offers Khamenei and the regime's middle-aged revolutionaries as
well as Iran's Western detractors an opportunity to achieve their goals. Rouhani is
certain to project a very different image to the outside world from that of Ahmadinejad.
To achieve his goals of achieving a resolution to the nuclear issue that will lift punishing
sanctions, turning Iran's crippled economy around and reducing intrusive repression,
Rouhani needs not only Khamenei's endorsement but also Western interlocutors who
can convince Iranians that their goal is a mutually acceptable deal rather than regime
It's a win-win situation for all but it will take wise leadership willing to grab the bull by
James M. Dorsey is Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies,
co-director of the University of Würzburg's Institute of Fan Culture, and the author of
The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog.