Iran watchers have been right to throw some cold water on Friday’s surprising first-round outright victory by Hassan Rowhani. Rowhani has a very long history in the inner circles of the Islamic Republic’s power structure. He’s known Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for more than four decades, and has managed to avoid the post-2009 purges of reformists and moderates. That says something about his standing in Khamenei’s eyes, as does the fact that the Guardian Council approved him as the most prominent moderate in the eight-man field. They knew there was a significant chance he’d be the next president if they did so, and he is not powerful enough that they would have taken such a step out of fear. Khamenei can’t be thrilled by the election, but he can’t be panicked, either.
So Rowhani’s election isn’t the next step in some Iranian march to liberal democracy. But it is still a major moment in Iran’s history. Several of the other candidates were closer ideologically to Khamenei. Khamenei’s alleged favorite among these was his nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, whose platform seemed to center on bowing and scraping before the Leader. Yet Jalili finished a distant third. Khamenei had wanted the election to flip a middle finger to the West; Rowhani’s big result was a bit of a middle finger to Khamenei.