Iran’s presidential elections prove the old saying that sometimes the bull wins.
Last Friday’s victory by former Iranian nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rouhani, probably came as a surprise for the regime, despite the carefully choreographed election process that ensured all candidates were unswerving regime loyalists. If nothing else, it vindicates Western pressure on the regime and proves that if Iran is to be prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons, sanctions’ pressure must relentlessly continue.
Hopeful early commentary of Rouhani’s success focuses on his supposedly reformist credentials, forgetting that albeit unintentionally, Rouhani represents a propitious star alignment for the regime. After all, Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, had Rouhani appointed head of the Supreme National Security Council in the 1990’s and later to the Expediency Council. A product of Iran’s clerical establishment who spent most of his life dealing with security and intelligence matters – including, possibly, an active role in the systematic murder of regime opponents in the 1990’s – Rouhani is hardly a dissident. He has already distanced himself from the endorsement he received from his reformist predecessor, Mohammad Khatami, by criticizing the radicalism of Khatami’s era. He took pride in his memoirs of deceiving the West during his time as nuclear negotiator. And he has publicly boasted that he sees Pakistan as a model for emulation when it comes to the nuclear question. This is hardly promising for those who see in his election a potential page turner for nuclear negotiations.
This is not to say that Rouhani’s victory was a cunning plot by the regime. He probably won fair and square – for once, the regime realized that it had everything to lose by tampering with the vote. Voters, having been denied all other choices after the regime disqualified almost all candidates, concentrated their support on the only candidate left standing, who appeared least favored by the Supreme Leader. Their vote is a rejection of the regime’s reckless nuclear policies – both a sign that sanctions are working and that the people by and large blame their rulers.
It is not the first time the regime has let the people choose – it happened in 1997, when reformist cleric Mohammad Khatami won the presidency. Then as now, Iran’s predicament was one of political isolation and economic difficulty. In 1997 oil prices were low and Iran was isolated because of its terrorist activities under former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. In 2013, Iran is subject to severe sanctions and its oil income has decreased significantly.
The regime could not risk a rerun of 2009, when the fraudulent re-election of the Supreme Leader’s preferred candidate, then-incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, led to one of the biggest domestic challenges to clerical rule since the Revolution in 1979. Four years later, elections seem to show that Iranians of all walks of life are losing their patience with the regime. Even the poorer, the rural countryside and the more traditionalist base appear to have thrown their support for Rouhani. Aware that regime support was hemorrhaging heavily, Khamenei must have resigned himself to Rouhani, as any major fraud could lead to another uprising except, this time, it would engulf the entire country.
Keenly aware of the growing international isolation Iran experiences and the attendant economic hardship it suffers due to sanctions, Iran’s rulers need someone who can turn the page, both domestically and internationally, to restore enough breathing space for their policies. As sanctions continue to bite into Iran’s oil revenues and access to the international financial system, reconciling Iran’s nuclear ambitions with the danger of internal collapse under economic pressure has become a perilous business. Allowing Rouhani to win, despite the ferocious criticism conservative media poured on him in the run-up to the vote, shows that the Supreme Leader presently sees the advantage of a ‘moderate’ rising to the presidency.
After all, the president will not have a free hand in making policy but his accession to power will buy Iran time.
Having Rouhani as Iran’s public international face may drive a wedge within Western countries on the nuclear issue just long enough for the regime to cross the finish line. Allowing him to run the country’s domestic affairs may placate internal dissent. And if Rouhani – who already asked for it – manages to squeeze sanctions’ relief from his Western interlocutors, the regime will have squared the circle. While it is still too early to draw a clear picture of why Khamenei let people choose Rouhani, the magic combination of low oil income, international isolation and military threats offers a plausible explanation.
The real glimmer of hope one must draw from Rouhani’s victory, then, is not that reform and compromise are finally on their way. Rather, this is a vote of no confidence in the system, proof that most Iranians do not care about the nuclear program and conclusive vindication, if any was still needed, that Western sanctions’ policy has undermined the regime beyond all predictions.
It is not time to waiver then – more pressure can bring this regime to its knees – and who knows, as Rouhani succumbs to a system he has no desire to dismantle, maybe Iranians will conclude that no improvement will come their way until they square off with this regime once and for all.
This article was co-authored by Saeed Ghasseminejad, a Ph.D. candidate at Baruch College, in New York City