Election Illusions and Realities in Iran

Saeed Rahnema on why Rowhani won Iran's presidential election and what his victory will mean for the people of Iran.
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June 19, 2013
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Retired professor of political science and public policy, and the founding director of the School of Public Policy and Administration at York University.

A salient message released in Iran – one of many numerous satirical dispatches released during last week’s presidential elections – said, “In other countries people go to the poll booths to elect their favourite candidate; in Iran we line up to vote in order to prevent a particular candidate from winning.” This indeed reflects the attitude and reaction of Iranians to an ‘engineered’ electoral process.

Reflecting on past instances of strategic voting by the Iranian people, where individuals choose from a list of candidates hand-picked by the establishment, I wrote that, “The key questions on the minds of the Iranians who want to vote strategically are: which candidate will be in a better position to possibly weaken the Supreme Leader? Which will be less detrimental in terms of economic mismanagement? And more importantly, which candidate will be less dangerous than the others in terms of brazen violations of human rights and civil liberties?”.

No one had any doubt that the Supreme Leader’s choice would be from among the hardline Principlists subservient to him. But the Islamist reformists led by former President Khatami withdrew their sole candidate (Mohammad Reza Aref) and, along with the pragmatists led by another former president Rafsanjani, put their weight behind Hassan Rowhani. During the presidential debates, Rowhani put forth a platform that included some of the burning demands of many Iranians, such as the release of political prisoners, reducing tensions with the west, and addressing unemployment. Unexpectedly, Rowhani obtained the majority of votes in the first round. The establishment could have brought out someone else’s name from the ballot box, as it has done during previous elections. But the loss of credibility the Supreme Leader suffered after the 2009 presidential elections forced him to be more cautious this time.

Another reason for the regime's decision is that it is weary of the future, as are the Iranian people. The danger of war was very much in the minds of the voters and those in charge of managing the election. Sanctions have caused enormous problems as well. Hence, the public voted for the less dangerous candidate, Hassan Rowhani, a man who also triggered the least concern for the establishment, for the following reasons:

Firstly, Iran has multiple states: one is the regular state headed by the president. The other one (and the more powerful) is the beyt-e rahbar (Office of the Supreme Leader) which duplicates state ministries and decides on issues of foreign affairs, security and the armed forces, and controls the state media. The third state is controlled by the Islamic Guards Corps, which is involved in all sectors of economy. There are also the bonyads (religious foundations and shrines) that control over 20 percent of the Iranian economy. In addition, the Majlis, the parliament, and the Judiciary,  are also under full control of the Principlists. So the president's powers are inherently limited.

Secondly, Rowhani is an establishment man. Among the Islamic Republic’s officials, he has a most extensive resume. He has been involved in all branches of the regime: as a member of the Assembly of Experts, which chooses the Supreme Leader; as a member of the Expediency Council, which has the final word on disputed issues between the Parliament and the Guardian Council; and as the Secretary of the National Security Council for 16 years. He was the Commander of Air-defense System during Iran-Iraq War; he has served as Deputy Commander of the Armed Forces, as well as Chief of Staff of the most important and largest corporation of the Islamic Guards (involved in infrastructure, refinery; pipelines, dams, etc). Finally, he has been a Member of Parliament for 20 years and served as chief nuclear negotiator under President Khatami.

The public (not including the voters mobilized by the regime to cast their votes for the regime's favoured candidate) voted for Rowhani to prevent a continuation of the last eight years under Ahmadinejad, which has been without a doubt the darkest phase of this very dark post-revolutionary period of Iranian history.  

Having lived under 34 years of Islamist rule, the Iranian people harbour no illusions about the regime or purported reformers. They are well aware that Rowhani’s election could alleviate the regime’s political, ideological, and economic crises, but also that a new “moderate” face could prolong its life. However, in the absence of a viable progressive alternative, they voted to prevent the already bad situation from getting worse.

Their strategic voting points to another unfortunate fact: the irrelevancy of the opposition groups, particularly outside Iran, whether left, liberal, royalist or secular, or religious. All of these groups, almost without exception, called for the boycott of the elections. Had Iranian voters listened, a worse candidate than Rowhani would have won the presidency.

The Iranian opposition is divided and in disarray. Some groups – inspired by the their Syrian, Iraqi, and Libyan equivalents - have formed “national councils” or “resistance” movements, or have organized conferences, all of which claim to represent the Iranian people with the hope of getting help from western governments. Some, along with the hawks in Israel, the U.S., Canada, and Europe, must be very unhappy about the outcome of the election, as they will have now more difficulty in justifying more sanctions and preparations for a potential war on Iran.  

For now a “moderate” face in Iran can ease the very difficult condition of life for the Iranian people, provided the public keeps on pressuring for its demands to be heard and for the opening of the political space. Opening of this type on even the most modest scale would revitalize Iran's civil society and encourage opposition groups to form a united front capable of replacing the Islamic regime with a secular democratic system.