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The Rouhani Surprise

The election of Hassan Rouhani as president of Iran has defied analysts and created an opportunity for the West.
A supporter of moderate cleric Hassan Rohani celebrates his victory in Iran's presidential election along a street in Tehran June 16, 2013. Rohani won Iran's presidential election on Saturday, the interior ministry said, scoring a surprising landslide victory over conservative hardliners without the need for a second round run-off. REUTERS/Yalda Moayeri (IRAN - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS) - RTX10PBJ

The only thing we learn from Iranian elections, to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, is that we do not learn from Iranian elections. Despite their careful study of the tea leaves of Iranian domestic politics, neither the pundits nor the policymakers in the West could have imagined, even a day before the June 14 election, that Hassan Rouhani would win the polling. The same kind of monocausal analysis that blindsided the observers of Iran now risks creating misguided expectations about the implications of Rouhani's presidency.

To be fair, predicting the result of the election was no easy feat, and the confluence of factors that led to Rouhani’s upset victory will likely be debated for years to come. For at least four reasons, the deck appeared to be stacked against him.

First, the fortunes of the pragmatists and the reformists, the two political factions that strongly supported Rouhani, had precipitously declined after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005. The 2008 and 2012 parliamentary elections and the disputed 2009 presidential election ushered in conservative forces. With their electoral victories facilitated by disqualifying rivals or tampering with the results, the ruling cabal appeared steadfast in guarding its political monopoly. The run up to this year’s poll seemed to follow the same pattern. Along with more than 670 candidates, the Council of Guardians, the body tasked with vetting candidate’s credentials, barred Rouhani’s mentor, former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, from contesting the race. Likewise, many moderate and reformist aligned candidates who had registered for the local council elections, held in conjunction with the presidential poll, were disqualified and prevented from contesting councilor seats.   

Second, Rouhani’s track record as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator (2003–2005) was torn asunder by almost all the major power brokers in Tehran. In May, Ali Bagheri, Iran’s current deputy nuclear negotiator, blasted Rouhani's confidence-building approach as “naïve and too compromising.” The reality is that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s own statements had provided the green light for the current negotiating team to strike at its predecessor. In 2012, Khamenei said, “Regarding the nuclear issue, at a time when we cooperated with them and backed down — this really happened although we learnt a lesson from it — they advanced so much that I said in this room that if they continued like that, I would have to step in personally. And that was what I did. I had to step in.”

Third, Rouhani’s surge in the polls occurred during the last two days of the campaign, and after endorsement by former presidents Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami. Without a doubt, the flurry of last-minute support by undecided voters played a decisive factor in sealing victory for Rouhani. One opinion poll conducted on the eve of the election by Information and Public Opinion Solutions LLC (iPOS) found that roughly 40% of respondents were still undecided. Even if the inherently unreliable polls conducted in closed societies were to be trusted, the crowded six-way race was likely to result in a fractured vote. As such, Rouhani’s majority win in the first round was hard to fathom.

Fourth, the decline of clerical representation in Iran’s elected institutions, barring the clergy mandated Assembly of Experts, did not bode well for Rouhani’s electability. While clerics assumed 50% of the seats in the Iranian parliament in the 1980s, and 25% in the 1990s, today they represent a mere 10% of the legislature’s membership. This de-clericalization trend, which is a consequence of generational change and an abatement of revolutionary fervor, was showcased in the field of candidates. Rouhani was the only turbaned candidate in a race that had the lowest ratio of cleric to layman candidates since the 1979 revolution.

Yet against all these odds, Rouhani became the Islamic Republic’s seventh elected president. After recovering from the initial shock, the punditocracy has shifted its attention to the implications of Rouhani’s presidency for the country’s foreign policy and nuclear stance. Given that the election proved, once again, that reading the tea leaves of Iranian politics is an inexact science, some humility is warranted in such forecasting.

There is still not enough evidence to prove one way or another whether Rouhani’s surprise victory was because of or in spite of the supreme leader’s whims. Similarly, it is unclear what has led the political establishment to countenance a semi-comeback by the pragmatists and reformists. The Iranian people’s yearning for change was not surprising, but the regime’s desire for moderation was. Some tie this change of heart to the sanctions, which have debilitated the Iranian economy. More skeptical observers see it as Khamenei's latest ploy to cloak his nuclear agenda under a more compromising façade. Others view it as an insurance policy for the theocracy to guarantee a clerical succession after the 74-year-old Khamenei and avoid total militarization of the polity by the revolutionary guards. Finally, there are those who subscribe to conspiracy theories and deem the outcome a result of backdoor horse trading.

Most likely, Rouhani’s victory was the result of some combination of these factors and more. One thing, however, is clear. The election of the most moderate candidate in this year’s election affords Western policymakers with an opportunity to revisit their calculations with regard to Iran. Their considerate and moderate reaction to Rouhani’s election could increase or restrict the new Iranian president’s room to maneuver. Both Washington and Brussels should tread carefully.

Yasmin Alem is an expert on Iranian elections and domestic politics. She is the author of Duality by Design: The Iranian Electoral System. On Twitter: @YasminAlem

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