Inside Iran's Election Surprise

June 19, 2013 Topic: Domestic PoliticsThe PresidencyPolitics Region: Iran

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.

He was also the Khatami administration’s chief nuclear negotiator from 2003-2005 and led the negotiations with Britain, France and Germany that resulted in the October 2003 Sa’dabad Declaration and November 2004 Paris Agreement, according to which Iran suspended its uranium-enrichment program and voluntarily implemented the Additional Protocol of its Safeguards Agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency. (The two agreements ultimately failed, even after Iran delivered its part because, instead of rewarding Iran, the European trio that were negotiating with Iran on behalf of the George W. Bush administration demanded more concessions.)

After Ahmadinejad was elected president in June 2005, Rowhani resigned from his position of chief nuclear negotiator, and spent the last eight years directing the Center for Strategic Research of the Expediency Discernment Council, a constitutional body headed by Rafsanjani that arbitrates disputes between parliament and the Guardian Council, and also acts as a collective adviser to Khamenei. He used his position to frequently criticize Ahmadinejad.

No realist expects Rowhani to be able to address the mountain of the problems that Iran is facing in its entirety. But he is very close to Rafsanjani and has very good relations with both Khatami and Khamenei. He is also not a reformist in the way Khatami is, which reassures the conservatives; although during his campaign many of his positions were close to those of the reformists and the Green Movement. He has called for “a government of moderation and justice,” and in his first press conference as president-elect promised greater openness over Iran's nuclear program: "We have to enhance mutual trust between Iran and other countries," he said, adding "We have to build trust." Domestically, Rowhani will try to clean house, and is likely to push for more social and political freedom.

Lessons for the United States

Unlike the situation with U.S. foes such as North Korea, or U.S. ally Saudi Arabia, the voice of the Iranian people—with whom the United States professes to seek friendship—still matters. Although Iranian elections are neither free, democratic, nor fair, they still matter. The people’s voice is still strong. Thus, the propaganda of those who want war with Iran, and claim that the only things that matter in Iran are the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the high command of the IRGC, is false.

Unlike the false proclamations of some Iran pundits, Rowhani could not have won the elections without the strong support of the Green Movement. In fact, the elections demonstrated its resilience. Its greatly exaggerated demise was the false narrative advocated by some of the exiled opposition—the Iranian version of Iraq’s Ahmed Chalabi—consisting of the monarchists, the Mujahedeen-e Khalq organization (a group recently removed from the list of terrorist organizations) and Iranian neoconservatives.

After Rowhani won, Iran erupted in celebrating with people shouting, “Yaa Hossein [oh, Hossein, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, Shiites’ third Imam, and a most revered figure in Iran], Mir Hossein [Mousavi];” “Mousavi, Karroubi must be freed,” and “the mother of Green Movement [Dr. Rahnavard] must be freed” (see here, here, here, here, and here, for examples of this).

The elections also revealed the disarray among Iran’s hardliners, with deep fissures emerging in even the IRGC ranks. They could not agree on a single candidate to compete with Rowhani. Only one faction of the IRGC high command supported Jalili, who was also supported by the reactionaries and Mojtaba Khamenei, the Supreme Leader’s son who is a power behind the scenes. That Jalili received only 11 percent of the vote (representing only 6 percent of the total eligible voters) only indicates the isolation of the hardliners. Another faction supported Ghalibaf, while the third candidate of a third faction of IRGC officers was IRGC’s former chief, Mohsen Rezaei.

But the most important development for nuclear negotiations happened in the third presidential debate on June 7, which provided clear evidence that Khamenei may be willing to negotiate a diplomatic solution to the standoff between Iran and the United States over Iran’s nuclear program. During the debate, former foreign minister and current senior foreign-policy adviser to Khamenei, Ali Akbar Velayati, who has been very close to the Supreme Leader for decades, fiercely attacked the tactics and positions of Jalili and Ahmadinejad in the nuclear negotiations with the P5+1 group (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany). Velayati also revealed a highly sensitive state secret, that Iran had twice reached a tentative agreement with the European Union to resolve the nuclear standoff, but the agreements were scuttled by Ahmadinejad, Jalili and their allies. It is unimaginable that Velayati would have attacked the two men without Khamenei authorizing it.