Skip to main content
Markaz

Iran @ Saban Weekly Wrap-Up: Readers React to Rouhani

Iran @ Saban took on a range of issues this week, including the role of social media in the presidential campaign, the surprising symmetry between Washington and Tehran in Iraq, and the prospects for Iran’s intervention in Syria to come back to haunt its leaders. However, it appears that many of you— like us— are heavily focused on the election dynamics at this time, as it was a post on the emerging strategy of moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani that drew the most feedback. In the wake of Rouhani’s high-profile rally in Tehran today, we wanted to post reader thoughts on his prospects, and more broadly on the way the election is shaking out, here.

Kyle Lewis, who modestly describes himself as “an Iraq guy by trade,” has a bit more optimism than I offered, arguing that he’s “not so certain that’s “‘too late’ to change the course of the campaign. Let’s not forget, the votes he’s aiming for here are those millions of voters disaffected from the 2009 election. These are largely younger voters, more likely to be tech-savvy. Some may be used to ad-hoc changes in schedule (where to show up for protests, where to avoid) and school is out for the summer – meaning younger voters won’t have much else going on. Despite the government’s internet and media restrictions, Twitter and YouTube (and let’s not forget those hundreds of blogs) are still abuzz with criticism and dissent. As the only cleric of the bunch, perhaps Rouhani thinks he’s got a bit more “wiggle room” in his criticism?”

Lewis neatly lays out the range of four viable options facing Iranians who sympathize with the reform movement or who are otherwise disaffected with the system and status quo. They can either boycott, which Lewis describes as unlikely; cast invalid ballots, in what he describes as a protest tactic along the lines of what took place on a modest scale during the 2012 parliamentary elections; vote for Aref; or vote for Rouhani. Lewis wisely reminds us that while he has flown under the radar, Aref shouldn’t be written off, noting that informal polls show that Iranians responded well to his performance in the first two debates.

Another Iran @ Saban post on the election, which described the ballot as a “free-wheeling reality show” where things can go “off-script” drew commentary from Farzan Sabet, a doctoral student in international history at the Graduate Institute Geneva. Sabet, together with Roozbeh Safshekan, a doctoral student in political science at the University of Alberata, co-founded and manages the terrific website, IranPolitik.com, which maintains a tightly knit group of social scientists who have collaborated on Iran-related research since 2009.

Sabet and his colleagues accept the premise that the Iranian presidential elections are not simply political theater. Extending the analogy, however, they ask: “(1) what is the script and (2) when is going off-script merely political drama and when is it politically consequential?” Sabet notes that “the script appears to be for [Saeed] Jalili to assume the presidency. As we pointed out late last week, the IRGC, which we view as the most powerful political actor in Iran, has subtly indicated that it favors Jalili for the presidency. However, such an outcome is not a foregone conclusion because the IRGC, and its larger coalition of hard-line Principalists including the supreme leader, may change their preference for a candidate based on a number of factors in the last days of the campaign. This is where going off script can matter.”

However, Sabet believes that Iran’s reformists, such as Rouhani, are not likely to benefit from a surprise shift in the election atmosphere, pointing out that “their longtime strategy of generating social pressure from below (fishar az payin) through elections and demonstrations and negotiating for political power from above (chanezani az bala) has failed. At the social level Centrists/Reformists, though popular, lack the organizational basis and social breadth to generate pressure and even when they can have shown unwillingness to really use this pressure. At the same time they have not been organized and united enough at the level of political elites to successfully negotiation for power from above. Even if they were, hard-line Principalists who wield the most important unelected centers of power are unwilling to negotiate.” As a result, Sabet predicts that the reformists “may continue to be a thorn in the regime’s side but appear unable to fundamentally challenge it for political power. They can generate political drama by going off-script, as could continue happening with Hassan Rouhani’s campaign, but this will not fundamentally change the ‘season finale’.”

Instead of a repeat of 1997, when reformist Mohammad Khatami managed to capture the presidency much to the surprise of everyone, including the candidate himself, the IranPolitik.com founders believe that the greatest prospect for an improvised electoral outcome would be one that could be countenanced by the Revolutionary Guard leadership and other influential hard-liners. Sabet suggests that “the most obvious candidate for such an upset is [Mohammad Baqr] Qalibaf. As we have pointed out, he is by no means the IRGC’s ideal candidate, but they can live with him. Moreover, he may be the only Principalist candidate who can gain the popular support of moderate voters because of his relative political moderation, strong management track-record as Tehran mayor, and emphasis on economic issues. More importantly, Iranian voters may decide to vote strategically and choose Qalibaf as the lesser of two evils, particularly if they view Centrist/Reformist candidates as being unexciting or impotent, or if the election enters a second stage between Qalibaf and Jalili.”

I must confess that I see validity in both Lewis’ argument outlining the possibility (but not the inevitability) of a reformist surge, and Sabet’s more sober appreciation of the centrality of the Revolutionary Guard in constraining the universe of political options in today’s Iran. I’ve been hesitating to get too firmly on the Rouhani bandwagon, in part because the election is now less than a week away and the reformists have yet to settle on a single standard-bearer, which means they may split the vote. However, Lewis rightly points out that a reasonable competitive reform-oriented candidate will attract a large proportion of the popular vote, simply because boycott has never proved an attractive alternative for Iranians. And as I found myself reminding another Iran-watching friend this week, just because we don’t see a wave emerging— yet— doesn’t mean one isn’t erupting beneath the surface. Our ability to predict Iranian political change accurately is notoriously minimal, and in the shadow of the 2009 repression, Iranians are likely to be far more cautious in their activism this time around. And of course the scenes from Rouhani’s rally today look eerily reminiscent of the excitement that built up in the days before the 2009 election, only with a slightly different hue.

Still, I’m tempered by the very realistic assessment that Sabet and his colleagues contributed. If Iran’s Supreme Leader and his hard-line henchmen were prepared to rig the election four years ago on the conviction that the Green Movement represented an externally-orchestrated ‘soft revolution,’ why on earth would they entertain Rouhani’s ambitions today when the system is under much greater international and internal pressure? Even if Khamenei had somehow been persuaded of the error of his ways, would he seek to elevate a more centrist figure in this fashion, through an election in which the hopes of young Iranians were once again energized and his hand-picked nuclear negotiator would be unexpectedly humiliated? No, a ‘happy ending’ to this election drama still seems too much to hope; we may have to settle for what Sabet describes as “the lesser of two evils,” Qalibaf. The only real hitch with the scenario that Sabet posed is that Qalibaf has not performed dramatically better than Jalili has to date, and it’s hard to tell if the polls favoring his candidacy are solid or just another sales-pitch. 

The most interesting aspect about this Iranian election is that the closer it comes, the less certain any of the potential outcomes seem to be. So stay tuned here at Iran@Saban, keep sending us your thoughts and commentary, and watch for more next week on the election as well as the nuclear issue and an array of other Iran-related topics.

Get daily updates from Brookings