Inside Iran's Election Surprise

The kingmakers and the man they helped to prevail.

“Rowhani’s election is like resurrecting a dead corpse,” Mohammad Nourizad, Iranian dissident documentary filmmaker and journalist proclaimed, after Hassan Rowhani, the sixty-four-year-old moderate-conservative cleric, won the Iranian presidential election last Saturday in a stunning landslide. Up until about two weeks ago, Rowhani had been given little if any chance of winning a race that also included Saeed Jalili, Iran’s nuclear negotiator, who was widely believed to be the candidate of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. There was also Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf, Tehran’s mayor and a retired brigadier general of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), who had consistently led all the polls until four days before the election.

Nourizad was not alone in his assessment. Many, including this author, had lost hope that the election would produce a president that could get Iran out of its current terrible state of affairs—a terrible economy brought about in part by the tough sanctions that the United States and its allies have imposed on Iran, measures that have hurt the lives of tens of millions of Iranians, and caused vast corruption, nepotism and political repression.

But, as is often said in Iran, “Iranians are the 90th minute people,” a reference to scoring the winning goal at the last minute of soccer, a sport loved by every Iranian. The recently concluded presidential election was no exception. How did the stunning turnaround come about?

There is little doubt, if any, that former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi is the most popular politician in Iran. But together with his wife Dr. Zahra Rahnavard, a professor of arts, and former speaker of parliament Mehdi Karroubi, he and these leaders of the democratic Green Movement have been under house arrest since February 2011. In their absence, Mohammad Khatami, a true reformist and a highly popular former president, was most people’s best hope for the presidency. But Khatami is despised by Iran’s fundamentalists and the security and intelligence forces, and was threatened repeatedly over his possible run for the office; thus, he never entered the race.

Next in line was another former president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a centrist and a shrewd politician. But after he entered the race with Khatami’s backing, the Guardian Council, a constitutional body that vets candidates, disqualified him from running on the excuse that he was too old. A state of despair took over among the reformists, Green Movement supporters and moderate conservatives. Many, particularly among exiled Iranians, called for a boycott of the elections.

But Rafsanjani’s failed candidacy also created a huge national wave of support for him that he, Khatami and their aides were determined to exploit. There were still two candidates in the race for whom the wave could be used, Mohammad Reza Aref, 62, the Stanford-educated first vice president (Iran has eight) in the second Khatami administration (2001-2005), and Rowhani. Aref, a university professor and a truly good man, is a mild-mannered reformist.

Khatami and Rafsanjani, together with the two candidates, agreed that, based on their assessment of the race, one should withdraw from the race in favor of the other. Then, three nationally-televised presidential debates took place, and although the first two did not amount to anything, the third one was transformed into a serious confrontation between Aref and Rowhani, on one hand, and Jalili and Ghalibaf, on the other. Aref and Rowhani strongly criticized Jalili and Ahmadinejad, and even implicitly supported the trio of Green Movement leaders (something of a taboo these days in Iran). That turned the tide. Aref withdrew from the race on Khatami’s request, and the two former presidents threw their support behind Rowhani, which excited the nation. Many who had decided to sit the elections out instead voted. The rest, as they say, is history.

Who is Rowhani?

Born in 1948 in a town east of Tehran, Rowhani joined the movement against the regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the most important U.S. ally in that part of the world, when he was very young. In 1966, Rowhani secretly crossed the border with Iraq to go to Najaf to meet with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who had been exiled there the year before after the uprising that he led in June 1963 failed.

Ever since the revolution toppled the Shah’s regime in February 1979, Rowhani has been at the center of power in Iran, almost exclusively in the national-security domain. In addition to being a five-term member of the parliament and the chairman of its national-security and foreign-policy committee, Rowhani held important military positions during the war with Iraq from 1980-1988. When Iran’s Supreme National Security Council was formed in 1989, Rowhani was appointed to the Council, led it until 2005, and is still a member.