The 2013 Presidential Election: 686 Applicants, Only Eight Contenders
In 2013, nearly a quarter century after Rafsanjani's first election to the presidency—literally a lifetime in a country where two-thirds of the population is below the age of 30—the possibility of his return to the office loomed large as the latest ballot approached. He had already served two terms, from 1989 to 1997, and had sought a third in 2005, in a tight race against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, then mayor of Tehran. He lost that contest in a run-off, a defeat that stung the establishment and catapulted the little-known Ahmadinejad into the limelight. Ahmadinejad's presidency reversed the trajectory of Iran's post-war path of moderation, and put the revolution back on a collision course with the international community.
600 hopefuls, 8 nominees, 1 president…Winners, losers and how it all worked.Breaking down Iran's 2013 presidential election…in less than two minutes.
Brianne M. Aiken
This time around, after months of public vacillation, Rafsanjani arrived to register his candidacy at the last possible moment, creating a perfectly orchestrated election surprise. His dramatic bid captivated an Iranian political establishment that had been in a state of suspended animation for four years, ever since the massive street protests that erupted after Ahmadinejad's dubious 2009 reelection. Not that Rafsanjani's candidacy was universally welcomed. Over the years, the disappointments of his tenure and his reputation for opportunism and corruption had eroded public support, perhaps accounting for the failure of his last two campaigns (a 2000 bid for the parliament as well as the 2005 presidential race). But he remains a heavyweight. And after the havoc wrought by Ahmadinejad, the prospective candidacy of a politician still considered a man of action and substance buoyed hopes for a better future.
Iranian elections adhere to an idiosyncratic set of procedures. While anyone can toss a hat into the ring, a clerical oversight body—the Council of Guardians—determines who is permitted to run. The eligibility criteria are vague enough to enable the regime to cull all but a few hand-picked insiders. In a bizarre turn of events, the Guardians rejected Rafsanjani's bid for another go at the office he had held for eight years. However absurd the Islamic Republic's vetting process has been in the past—and more than two dozen elections over the course of 34 years have provided abundant fodder for ridicule—the ruling that one of the regime's founders was unfit to run for the presidency carried the farce to a new level.
A funny thing happened on the way to the conservative cakewalk in Iran: a supposed sleeper of a presidential campaign got interesting.
Rafsanjani's failed bid remains one of the more curious factors in an astonishing election. Perhaps it was simply textbook political theater from the regime's most skilled showman, his snubbing meant to reinforce the need for a return to realism, thus improving the prospects for the candidate closest to his own views and experience—Hassan Rouhani.
The sixth president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad earned a reputation as an unpredictable hardliner who reversed the liberalization promoted by his predecessor, reformist Mohammed Khatami. Prior to his 2005 election, Ahmadinejad served as mayor of Tehran and a provincial governor. His comments denying the Holocaust and raising doubts about al Qaeda's role in the 9/11 attacks, plus his contested 2009 re-election victory, created fierce opposition at home and abroad. After his presidency, Ayatollah Khamenei appointed him to the Expediency Council, where he now serves alongside such notables as Hashemi Rafsanjani, Hassan Rouhani, Ali Akbar Velayati and Mohammed Reza Aref.
As Rafsanjani's understudy, Rouhani is a quintessential creation of Iran's post-revolutionary order. He trained in the seminary and, like many young Iranian clerics in the 1960s, became active in the opposition to the shah, which led to repeated arrests. Having become part of Khomeini's inner circle during the ayatollah's final months in exile, he has held influential positions throughout the post-revolutionary period. But it was his role as a nuclear negotiator, an extension of his 16-year tenure as the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, that hurtled Rouhani into the eye of the hurricane, and brought him to the attention of the world, which had hitherto taken little notice of him. Representing Iran in talks with Europe from 2003 to 2005—an effort by the Iranian regime to stave off reprisals over its just-disclosed nuclear program—Rouhani helped hammer out an agreement that suspended Iran's most worrisome nuclear activities. To date it remains Iran's most significant concession on the nuclear issue, and it earned Rouhani the nickname "the sheikh of diplomacy" for his role in defusing a mounting clash with the West.
Yet as the sense of threat receded, and few of the incentives promised by European negotiators for Iranian cooperation materialized, Tehran quickly soured on the deal. Having only warily endorsed the 2003 suspension, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei quashed it less than two years later, resuming the nuclear program and championing defiance in tune with Iran's new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Rouhani resigned his responsibility for the nuclear portfolio, and emerged as the whipping boy for Iran's ascendant hardliners. In their eyes, Rouhani's diplomacy represented a surrender to the rapacious West, exchanging diamonds for peanuts, conceding Iran's resources and its influence as irresponsibly as the monarchy had.
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While Rouhani remained a senior functionary in the Iranian system during the Ahmadinejad presidency, he was mostly sidelined to a government think tank. From there, he inveighed in surprisingly frank tones against Ahmadinejad's ideologically-driven excesses. Sometimes he even appeared to be serving as an informal spokesman for Iran's embattled realists, most of whom had been shunted aside in the wake of Ahmadinejad's giddy arrival on the scene. During this period he also wrote one of the only truly interesting memoirs of recent Iranian political history, divulging new details about the nuclear program, sharing insider gossip and dispensing the blunt truths that are his hallmark.
Rouhani held a strange sinecure on the fringes of official respectability and relevance in these years, publicly excoriated by Khamenei for the nuclear negotiations he had led, yet somehow retaining his close bond with the supreme leader. So it was perhaps not surprising that out of 686 applicants, Rouhani was one of the eight candidates —all of them men of the system, and most of an unabashedly conservative bent— to receive the nod from the Council of Guardians.
The slate elicited little excitement and, after the short-lived commotion over Rafsanjani, many observers anticipated an anodyne campaign, a display of mindless deference to the regime's ideological strictures. Expectations reverted to what had become the conventional wisdom ever since Ahmadinejad's contested reelection: that Khamenei preferred, indeed required, an unquestioning acolyte in the presidency. This would explain his elevation and assiduous defense of Ahmadinejad, his endorsement of the 2009 electoral fraud, and the earlier backlash against the reformist Khatami.
Tehran, June 12, 2013: Iran's top nuclear negotiator and conservative presidential candidate Saeed Jalili waves to supporters during a campaign rally at Heydarnia stadium in downtown Tehran.
Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images
Like so many widely held perceptions of Iran, however, the assumption that Ahmadinejad had ever been merely a pliant errand boy for Iran's hardliners misses the mark. That may have been the intention, but Ahmadinejad eclipsed these expectations and the presidency's limited powers, overturning the revolutionary state's protocols and alarming the establishment. Late in his second term, after he had overstepped one time too often by attempting to fire the intelligence minister over the supreme leader's objections, Khamenei reined him in—which only reinforced presumptions that the supreme leader would not make the same mistake again. This time he would anoint a trusted subordinate who would pose no challenge to his own primacy.
Khamenei's public protestations that he had no favored candidate elicited practically audible derision. Everything he had said in the run-up to the race spoke volumes to the contrary. The supreme leader framed the parameters governing the election in unambiguous fashion: the ballot must be a pro-regime "epic"; candidates must avoid any hint of "concessions to [Iran's] enemies"; and any repeat of the mass unrest that erupted four years earlier would not be tolerated.
Given these criteria, Iran's incumbent nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili seemed spot-on for consecration. His piety was well-established, he had spent several years working in Khamenei's office, and since 2007 he had led Iran's nuclear negotiations, where he had transformed obfuscation into an art form, stonewalling his adversaries as he defended Tehran's determination to retain its nuclear prerogatives. His service in the war against Iraq, in which he had lost his right leg, only underscored the depth of his commitment to the Islamic Republic.
Jalili's main competition looked to come from another next-generation conservative, Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf. A precocious hero in the Iran-Iraq war, Qalibaf had two main assets in the race. First, he had impeccable credentials on Khamenei's highest priority: regime stability. In 1999, Qalibaf signed an unprecedented letter by senior military commanders publicly rebuking then-President Khatami over his handling of student protests; Qalibaf even boasted of his own role in cracking skulls during the quashing of those demonstrations. Second, his position as mayor of Tehran bestowed upon him a built-in popular base and a reputation for results on quality-of-life issues.
Tehran, June 12, 2013: Supporters carry Iranian presidential candidate Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf at a rally.
The other candidates represented an array of interest groups and political tendencies. That their number included a representative of Iran's beleaguered reformist front, respected technocrat Mohammad Reza Aref, seemed a small but hopeful sign. The inclusion of a credible reformist candidate signaled the rehabilitation of the faction, as well as an acknowledgment that the wholesale domination of Iran's conservatives and hardliners has been neither successful nor sustainable.
Ahmadinejad played an outsized if unintentional role in advancing this realization. Outside Iran, the former president is best known for his Holocaust denial and anti-Israeli invective, his unsettling messianism and his wild-eyed ruminations. Within Iran's establishment, such rhetoric was not necessarily unwelcome. But his proclivity for chaos and crisis was, and it alienated even the hardliners who had backed him. Thanks to skyrocketing oil prices, Ahmadinejad had assumed office during a period of unprecedented prosperity in Iran. Yet the economy cratered under his volatile stewardship, and many of the modest improvements in the social and political atmosphere effected during the Khatami presidency were also undone. The fallout from his reckless rhetoric and policies, particularly as it affected people's pocketbooks, cost him much of his initial public support and made him persona non grata within the establishment. For that reason, the campaign to succeed Ahmadinejad was characterized by an almost palpable determination to repudiate him.