Iran Surprises Yet Again; Strong Showing By Rouhani Forecasts Historic Shift

After a day of heavy turnout and an unexpectedly suspenseful wait for results, Iran appears to be on the verge of shocking the world once again, as a presidential election initially expected to be a preset cakewalk for the pious protégé of the supreme religious leader is moving slowly toward a robust lead for a cleric who has campaigned around a message of hope and change. Instead of 2009, when the instantaneous declaration of victory on behalf of hard-line president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sparked defiance from the other contenders and massive street demonstrations, today’s election appears to be mirroring the stunning 1997 reformist upset victory. It is far too soon to tell if Hassan Rouhani, the candidate who is currently topping the vote count, will seize the presidency, but his strong showing and the overall context of the campaign’s discourse of domestic and foreign policy suggests that we are witnessing a shift of historic significance in Iran.

Results are trickling in slowly, which is itself a marked shift from 2009, when the Interior Ministry pronounced Ahmadinejad the overwhelming victor just as the polls closed. Both then and now, the timing was the first tipoff that the narrative had changed, but this time around the cynicism born of the vicious repression that quickly squashed the 2009 protests meant that poll-watchers remained wired and wary. Twitter has been buzzing for hours with rumors, but the overall trend of anecdotes and extrapolations moved steadily in Rouhani’s favor, as those who dared to hope began to embrace first the prospect that he would make the cut for a second-round run-off ballot, and then the possibility – still very much uncertain – that he had won the first round outright.

With Rouhani leading the vote, the regime’s calculation now is whether a run-off campaign involving Saeed Jalili or Mohammad Baqr Qalibaf is worth the risk. A second round would entail an additional week of the kind of exhilarated campaigning, replete with young Iranians dancing in the streets and an amplified chorus of demands for social and political reforms, and ultimately pose a greater risk to the system than a narrow outright victory Rouhani victory. The alternative, a quick but close win in the first round, might keep Rouhani’s popular mandate relatively more modest, and that as well as the opportunity nip further youth activism in the bud is an important consideration. And rigging the run-off after a vote differential that at least initially appears to be quite substantial poses real jeopardies of street violence. On that basis, I’ll violate my own rule of avoiding predictions by suggesting that the slow roll-out of the vote is a precursor to the proclamation of a narrow Rouhani plurality in the hours and days to come.

The big question confounding those of us who focus on Iran is why? Why has a regime that unabashedly rigged the last presidential election, brutally suppressed dissent, and spent the past four years wallowing in animus toward the supposed “sedition” of the 2009 campaign and subsequent unrest suddenly opted to empower a moderate? The answer is simple, and the parallels are clear. Iran can endure its current predicament, but a leadership that has stewarded a 34-year revolution is no longer bent on infinite sacrifice. A generation ago, when the burdens of the war with Iraq became too much to bear, a fixer was found. In mid-1988, then-parliamentary speaker Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was elevated to commander-in-chief of Iran’s military with an implicit mission to end the war as quickly as possible, which he did.

Today, despite the campaign antics, Rouhani is an ideal candidate to spearhead a new initiative to wrest Iran from its debilitating battle with the international community over the nuclear issue. His credentials for this assignment are clear: as a member of the religious class, he offers the prospect of clerical continuity; as a long-time consigliore of Khamenei, he harbors no intentions of pushing the constraints on the presidency; and as the author of Iran’s previous dabbling in nuclear concessions, he can be the fall guy, yet again, for a deal that the Leader wishes to disavow. Rouhani is tested and nothing if not pragmatic. Though his supporters have crashed the gates of theocratic restrictions on debate, Rouhani has remained mostly cautious in his own statements, his campaign embodying its slogan of prudence as well as hope.

For Washington, this is a moment of tremendous opportunity, but no easy answers. Signs of domestic moderation in Iran may only encourage the erosion of the heretofore robust international coalition on sanctions implementation. And whoever takes the helm in Iran in August will still contend with a thorny factional landscape on the nuclear issue as well as on all the other areas of concern for Washington, particularly Syria and the regime’s treatment of its own citizens. Still, whatever happens in the ensuing hours and days, we must appreciate that the arc of Iranian politics has shifted in ways that contravened the conventional wisdom. That alone is an auspicious sign.