Washington, DC – In the months prior to the 2013 Iranian presidential election, few political commentators and observers in the media could have predicted the landslide victory of Hassan Rouhani. The majority of the dialogue concerning the Iranian elections focused on expectations of voter non-participation, a lack of political organization among reformist and moderate groups, and another hardliner, conservative victory.
“This election was an accident,” said Dr. Kevan Harris, a sociologist and postdoctoral research associate at Princeton University’s Near Eastern Studies Department, speaking at a working group seminar at the United States Institute of Peace. “To look at the election ex post facto and say retrospectively that this is the way that it was going to work out and this is the way the system wanted, then you weren’t there or you weren’t looking,” added Harris. “We all thought that no one was going to vote this time. People were predicting low participation, that this was a conservative race between [conservatives].”
According to Harris, this unexpected reformist victory could be the most important Iranian election since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The inability of the conservative elite to mobilize for an electoral victory was the result of a political implosion of the right wing manifesting after the “defeat” of the Green Movement in 2010.
“Why did this election produce such a surprise?” asked Harris. “The implosion of the conservative elites was immense, unexpected, and they brought it upon themselves. We misread Iranian politics after 2009. We thought that 2009 showed that the right wing in Iran had their act together and made a coherent, authoritarian network that basically took over the state and was running things – that was the way it was going to be in Iran.”
Although, on the surface, the conservative front seemed to be as strong and united as it had ever been, it only lasted as long as the threat it faced from the Green Movement. Harris, taking note of the self-destruction of the Iranian right wing, stated that once that threat dissipated, “the conservatives turned upon themselves and decided to eat their own,” adding that, “By the time we got to the 2013 election, there were four right wing candidates, and one center candidate. [The four right wing candidates] all thought they were going to win.”
What the conservative factions failed to notice in the face of their internal disputes was the remobilization and reorganization efforts of reformist and moderate groups within Iran. In the year prior to the election, these groups, with former Presidents Mohammad Khatami and Hashemi Rafsanjani at the forefront, conducted polling outside of Tehran to respond to growing demands for a viable center candidate. After Rafsanjani’s disqualification by the Guardian Council, the name that was resonating in the polls was Hassan Rouhani. “Rouhani was not an exciting candidate – he was made exciting because people were demanding a candidate to vote for, which reformists met, creating a huge wave of excitement,” said Harris.
Dr. Fatameh Haghighatjoo, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Nonviolent Initiative for Democracy, also spoke at the USIP seminar and added that Rouhani’s success was dependent on a pragmatic political approach by reformists and moderates who utilized limited opportunities and worked together to leverage the election and its outcome. “For the past few years we have seen a triangular leadership. [The triangle] is President [Mohammad] Khatami, President Hashemi Rafsanjani, and now President Rouhani.”
Haghighatojoo said that, after Khatami did not participate in the election and Rafsanjani’s candidacy was disqualified by the Guardian Council, one important step for the reformist coalition was the decision not to radicalize and instead provide support to a single candidate, while keeping in mind the need to address particularly important topics such as civil liberties, economic growth, and the nuclear impasse. “The message from below was [the moderates] want to participate [in the election],” and “want to end the isolation that Iran had been experiencing for the past eight years,” said Haghighatjoo.
Rouhani, with his extensive background in foreign policy and nuclear diplomacy, seems to possess the practical tools necessary to strike the proper balance between nationalist interest and international demands. “Rouhani is not going to endanger his power”, stated Haghighatjoo, “[but] he has learned lessons from the past sixteen years of Khatami’s reform period and Ahmadenijad’s period. He has a better understanding of how he can play within the system, his limitations and opportunities, how to grab opportunities and extend those opportunities, and how to play with the Supreme Leader, Revolutionary Guard, the Parliament, and so on in order to meet demands.”
One of the most difficult challenges that Rouhani will face is keeping in touch with these major political players, particularly the Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guard. Farzan Sabet, a doctoral student at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies speaking at the USIP seminar, discussed that conservative institutions such as the Revolutionary Guard are dealing with their own political obstacles. “The IRGC, as a body, remains the powerful political actor in Iran,” said Sabet, “but it has a lot of difficulties trying to, by themselves, turn the power they have in the security sector, and within the economy, into political power.”
According to Harris, the lack of political unity and cohesiveness among the IRGC was a major factor in why it was unable to place another conservative in the Presidential office, revealing that the institution itself is not as monolithic as observers in the United States thought it was. “If the IRGC is such a monolithic actor, then why did they split their vote 3 ways?” asked Harris. “Some of the IRGC loudly supported Qalibaf, another segment supported Jalili, but what wasn’t reported in the western press was that some supported Hassan Rouhani, and voted for him. [The results] show that IRGC is a divided institution because it is a big institution.”
President Rouhani’s success depends on whether he will be able to maintain the pragmatic political approach he relied on to get to the presidency in the first place and redraw new political boundaries across the Iranian political elite. He has already announced his intention to create a trans-factional cabinet, “choos[ing] the most qualified people from all sides and factions, under conditions of moderation and temperance”.
The internal debates of the right wing “spilled out onto the nation’s tablecloths,” said Harris. “Elite alliances in Iran do not stay the same forever, they have to shift and be remade. So if President Rouhani can split essentially the right wing and bring some of them in – which we might see here as a bad thing – it would actually be the best thing. If he could bring them in, give them a stake in the outcome, then they could change a lot.”