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Rouhani Goes To Isfahan: Why Iran's Elections May Yet Get Interesting

What in the world is Hassan Rouhani up to? As one of Iran's eight official candidates for the presidency, he should be running a cautious campaign. After all, little is clear in Iran today, but the rules of the electoral game certainly are, thanks to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader. Khamenei has framed expectations surrounding the election in severe and unambiguous fashion: the ballot will be a pro-regime "epic;" candidates will avoid any hint of "concessions to [Iran's] enemies," and any whiff of a revival of the opposition Green Movement or a repeat of the mass unrest that erupted in the wake of the ballot four years ago will not be tolerated. In case any confusion persists, senior Iranian security officials have offered ominous warnings as reinforcement.

On those grounds— and by virtue of his reputation as a pragmatist— Rouhani ought to be towing the line. And yet, day by day, his campaign appears to be inching toward, or even over, the regime's red lines on the very issues that are at the heart of the insecurities of the leadership of the Islamic Republic: the 2009 upheaval that battered the regime's legitimacy and splintered its elites and the nuclear file. Rouhani has insisted that if he is elected, he will bring about the release of political prisoners and, in a clear reference to detained reformist candidates Mir Hussain Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, all those who remain under house arrest as well. He snapped at an interviewer on state television who criticized his handling of the nuclear file during the early negotiations with the international community, and has sparred bitterly over nuclear diplomacy with the current negotiating team, which also happens to be the force behind the leading contender for the presidency, Saeed Jalili.

Rouhani also bypassed state media by releasing a compelling campaign video, highlighting his leadership experience during the war with Iraq and the nuclear negotiations, straight to YouTube. With an aggressive social media presence (more on this aspect of the race to come tomorrow), he has sought to rally young Iranians to vote, by promising that the election "will not be the same as 2009," and his audiences— though small— have apparently unnerved the authorities sufficiently with their chants on behalf of Mousavi that Rouhani's youth campaign manager was arrested a few days ago.

That move did not appear to discourage Rouhani, who chose to campaign today in Isfahan, where he joined in the mourning procession for a dissident cleric. Grand Ayatollah Jalaleddin Taheri shook the system more than a decade ago when he resigned his post as Friday prayers leader of the historic capital of Isfahan, a post he was given by the revolution's founder and which is considered highly influential in the clerical— and regime— hierarchy. The Supreme Leader issued a cursory condolence message over Taheri's death, but in general the event was downplayed in the state media, as befitting a system that Taheri castigated for its "deviation, abuse and lawlessness."

Taheri's resignation letter is worth a read, if only for its rhetorical extravagance and characteristically Iranian emotion. It was probably the fiercest and most significant clerical defection since that of his close associate, Grand Ayatollah Hussain-Ali Montazeri, the man originally selected to succeed Khomeini but sacked in 1989 after he denounced the regime's internal repression. Taheri's public resignation came at a sensitive time for the Islamic Republic, as reformist President Mohammad Khatami's second term devolved into stagnation and the mounting threat of American moves against Saddam Hussein and international pressure over the nuclear issue began to spook Tehran. Taheri remained a force in his retirement, continuing to insist that the Islamic Republic had abandoned the democratic principles of the revolution and of Khomeini himself, speaking out on behalf of Mousavi in 2009, and defying a regime ban on memorials for Montazeri's death later that year.

I realize that a lot of this may seem like mere inside baseball within a complicated political and religious system, but the significance of Rouhani's decision to join the Taheri commemoration really bears notice beyond the insular world of clerical Kremlinologists. It would raise eyebrows almost anywhere for a presidential candidate to participate in a funeral of a man who referred to the country's sitting leadership as "astride the unruly camel of power" and the "henchmen of tyranny." To do so in the Islamic Republic, on behalf of a man who explicitly impeached the theological bonafides of the regime, is a jaw-dropper. Adding fuel to the fire are the video clips of Taheri mourners chanting "death to the dictator" that are circulating the internet.

I want to dampen any temptation to embrace Rouhani as anti-establishment candidate. Iran's revolutionaries have managed to bridge factional divides and pay homage to discredited revolutionary figures in the past (although never, in my memory, in person). And Rouhani himself is an absolute creature of the system, someone whose support for the theocratic system has never wavered and whose tenure as nuclear negotiator provoked at least as much frustration in his European interlocutors over the attempts at obfuscation as his successors did among the broader international slate of negotiators. And Rouhani is no kamikaze candidate— he has been careful to portray his agenda as one firmly grounded in Iran's national interests, to highlight Khamenei's support for him over multiple decades, and to use Ahmadinejad's management over the past eight years as the specific target of his critique of many of the current policies.

So to return to where this post began, I continue to wonder what Rouhani may be aiming to achieve with this apparently provocative campaign strategy. Rouhani has established a reputation as a pragmatist, owing in part to his long-time association with former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and the approval of his candidacy was seen as a mechanism by the system for coopting the votes of Iran's centrists without any actual risk that he might win. If he is hoping that a little political risk may rally the millions of young Iranians who are disaffected from the regime itself, it seems a late and profoundly uncertain gambit, only 10 days prior to the vote. Having held mainly bureaucratic positions (albeit senior ones), Rouhani is known but not familiar to Iranians. He has yet to receive an official endorsement from Rafsanjani, two of whose children accompanied him to register for the election, or Khatami. Together, they could muster considerable national excitement for Rouhani if, or when, they choose to do so, but no announcement is anticipated until this weekend, less than one week prior to the vote. It seems too short a window to exert a dramatic shift in the course of the campaign.

Alternatively, he may be running simply to redeem his own record. Rouhani has taken on the nuclear issue in a frontal fashion, defending his accomplishments and reminding the Jalili campaign in particular that the agreements he negotiated with the West to suspend Iran's uranium enrichment and reprocessing program were undertaken at the behest of, and with the full support of, the entire leadership. To underscore this point, Rouhani's campaign video repeatedly airs praise from the Supreme Leader, although of course it is Khamenei whose more recent critiques of the management of the nuclear file during the Rouhani era has been devastating.

So what is Rouhani up to, and how will Khamenei and the rest of the Islamic Republic establishment respond? You weigh in - email us at IranAtSaban@brookings.edu. For my part, I'll keep watching to see what, if any, surprises emerge next from Iran's presidential campaign.