Prudence And Hope Prevail: Iran Election Reflects Desire For Change

Iran’s presidential election culminated in an explosion of public joy on Saturday in response to the official announcement that centrist cleric Hassan Rouhani had unexpectedly won a narrow plurality of the popular vote. The jubilation on the streets of Tehran and other major cities came after a short, tumultuous election and an excruciatingly slow ballot count. Both the process and the public reaction offered the absolute antithesis of the bitterly contested reelection of current president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad four years ago.

For Iran’s Islamic Republic, Rouhani’s victory represents a significant turning point, albeit one whose proportions and precise vector remain uncertain. For this moment at least, such details seemed irrelevant, as Iranians were determined to revel in a rare moment of unadulterated optimism, the fitting end to a long four years in which the themes of hope and prudence that Rouhani campaigned on were painfully absent. And the world cannot help but celebrate with them.

However, we should also stop to consider how it is that Iran has surprised us all again, as it has with rhythmic regularity over the course of recent years. Rouhani is in many ways an accidental instrument of change in Iran. His past political affiliations lie closer to Iran’s traditional conservatives rather than the leftists who spearheaded the reform movement 15 years ago. In part for this reason, his candidacy was the subject of much early skepticism among Iranians, and his clerical stature was considered a distinct liability in generating popular support for a system whose spiritual antecedents had waned or even turned against it.

His victory can only be seen as the product of simultaneous shifts within Iran: a concerted effort within the establishment to rebalance a system that was at risk of implosion as a result of external pressure and internal feuds, and a bottom-up determination to rally around any candidate who offered a path out of the profound hardship and isolation that has beset Iran as a result of sanctions and internal repression. In this sense, Rouhani was the beneficiary of the original reformist strategy that sought to use negotiations at the top and pressure from below to effect change.

For many observers and Iranians alike, Rouhani’s election called to mind the 1997 upset victory of reformist cleric Mohammad Khatami over a hand-picked conservative, Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri. This time around, there is an important distinction, in that Rouhani’s campaign reflected much more of a cross-factional initiative of the Iranian political establishment. In fact, both Khatami and his 1997 opponent Nateq-Nouri supported Rouhani, an alliance that reflected an implicit recognition among many of the Islamic Republic’s power brokers that perpetuating the status quo was simply unsustainable.

The alliance between the centrists and the reform movement— which scholar Farideh Farhi pointed out last week— should have been a signal that something unusual was afoot in Iran. Rouhani could not have won without the mobilization of the reform movement’s potent political machinery on his behalf, rallying voters around the country and persuading (at some effort) the one real reformist candidate to withdraw in his favor. In this sense, Rouhani’s win reflects the maturation of the reform movement, which spent its heyday vilifying Iran’s centrists as epitomized by Rafsanjani. 

The establishment’s apprehensions were very much in sync with the sense of siege expressed by many ordinary Iranians. This propelled many to overcome their deep disaffection from the regime and residual bitterness over the brutal outcome to the 2009 vote to go to the polls on Friday. At least one candidate, nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, appeared to herald more of the same, and so the choice for some was not so much an embrace of Rouhani as it was a vociferous rejection of the country’s current predicament.

Rouhani’s victory also underscores the disarray among Iran’s conservatives, who despite intense and prolonged coordination efforts failed to coalesce around a single candidate. Although attention now is focused on the surprisingly decisive outcome— which contravened expectations that the large field would require a second round— the reality is that conservative candidates garnered the support of at least 40 percent of Iran’s voters on Friday. This should serve as a reminder that political sentiments within Iran are very much divided, in some respects more intensely than at the outset of the reformist period.

Of course the most stunning aspect of Friday’s election is simply that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the increasingly influential hard-liners who lead the security forces allowed it happen. As I wrote in my initial reaction to the election, there is much about Rouhani that offers welcome continuity for Khamenei and the rest of revolutionary leadership. Still, in acceding to his presidential prospects, they have elevated a man whose position on the nuclear issue they have publicly reviled for a decade, and they have revived a popular movement for political moderation that they have denounced as sedition.

The ultimate conclusion from Rouhani’s victory is that neither Khamenei nor Iran’s military commanders harbor any illusions about the depth of the existential crisis confronting the regime. Whether they can demonstrate similarly pragmatic flexibility in seeking to resolve the causes of that crisis— the standoff with the international community over the nuclear issue— remains the next great conundrum of Iran’s always unpredictable political narrative.