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Case Analysis 30 June, 2013

The Iranian President-Elect and the Available Margin for Change


The Unit for Political Studies

The Unit for Political Studies is the Center’s department dedicated to the study of the region’s most pressing current affairs. An integral and vital part of the ACRPS’ activities, it offers academically rigorous analysis on issues that are relevant and useful to the public, academics and policy-makers of the Arab region and beyond. The Unit for Policy Studies draws on the collaborative efforts of a number of scholars based within and outside the ACRPS. It produces three of the Center’s publication series: Situation Assessment, Policy Analysis, and Case Analysis reports. 

The victory of the "moderate" candidate, Hassan Rouhani, in the first round of the Iranian presidential elections, with more than 18.6 million votes, equaling 50.71 percent of all votes cast by registered voters, represented a massive surprise for observers of Iranian affairs, with 72.70 percent of the population participating.

While Rouhani is not considered Reformist in Iran, Reformists supported him in the elections as a moderate candidate. Rouhani's win represented a resounding political victory for the coalition of the reformist opposition and the moderates, led by Hashemi Rafsanjani, as well as a defeat for the Fundamentalists. Moreover, the elevated participation rate affirmed that Iranians continue to use the ballot boxes to change the political situation in their country. How will the results of these elections affect Iran's domestic and international policies? What are the challenges that will confront the new president in his attempts to effect change?

The Background of Rouhani's Victory

Unlike the 2009 elections, which most Iranians did not find transparent, there was a consensus as to the credibility of the results of the 2013 elections. This represents a positive development toward the rule of law and the empowerment of the popular will, which remains a long path for Iran, requiring a reform of electoral laws, beginning with the "triage" process that the Guardian Council utilizes to choose the candidates who are permitted to enter the presidential race.

For more than two years, the ruling regime has refused to respond to the Reformist's demands, which they presented as a condition for their participation in the presidential and local elections. These conditions consisted mainly of the lifting the house arrest that was imposed on reformist leaders Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, as well as the release of political prisoners.

In the same vein, former reformist president Mohammad Khatami stated that his party was not permitted to return to political life, and that the allowed margin of action is too narrow to be exploited by the reformist opposition to effect change. This led the Reformists to maintain a distance from the candidate Mohammad Reza Aref, who was perceived as a Reformist candidate, but was never officially so; instead, his candidacy was presented as a personal initiative on his part. During the election, the Reformists wagered on the alliance between Khatami and Rafsanjani, but the cancellation of the latter's candidacy, under pressure from the Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi, who is loyal to the supreme guide, caused confusion among the Reformists. However, they quickly regained their balance when they convinced Mohammad Reza Aref to withdraw in favor of Hassan Rouhani.

This electoral change signified a qualitative leap in the Iranian opposition's political awareness, which for years had remained incapable of uniting its components until it was convinced that the only path forward lay in unifying its efforts and maneuvering within the permitted margin and conditions set by the political system. This also means that the opposition benefited from the lessons of the 2005 and 2009 elections, when the reformist vote was split among candidates. This shift in the opposition's mentality will be extremely useful in the long run for managing its conflict with the various power centers within the regime.

It is also possible that the Reformist and Moderate victories in these elections will lead to reinforcing the forces of change that still bet on peaceful change within "the rules of the game" as defined by the ruling authority. This wager is supported by several factors, including the failure of the popular revolt in 2009 to achieve its objectives, the inability of the various opposition currents to agree on a unified political program, the massive losses incurred by Iranians due to international sanctions, and the influence of the security apparatus, which does not hesitate to eliminate any political competitor that threatens the ruling elite's interests.

In his electoral battle, Hassan Rouhani exploited the current circumstances in Iran to present himself as a candidate for change in the face of fundamentalist opponents who represent continuity of the present situation. Rouhani also benefited from the absence of the Reformist's main figures and the consensus of the reformist and moderate opposition. This contrasted with the fragmentation of the fundamentalist voting bloc between different candidates, not to mention the popular anger toward the Fundamentalists in general, and society's fear of the persistence of the their confrontational policies toward regional and international powers. Lastly, Ahmadinejad's supporters did not vote for any specific candidate after Ahmadinejad refused to support any of the remaining presidential hopefuls after his official candidate, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, was excluded by the Guardian Council.

Opportunities and Challenges for the Elected President

It may not be accurate to interpret Iranians broad participation in the elections as a vote of confidence for the regime of the Islamic Republic in general because the millions of votes that brought Hassan Rouhani to victory were mainly cast against the policies of the Ahmadinejad government and the other Fundamentalists who supported him during the 2009 elections. Furthermore, these votes were cast against the will of the supreme guide, who risked his neutral position by publicly siding with Ahmadinejad and blessing his confrontational policies throughout the past eight years, often defending these policies under the slogan "the politics of resistance," which brought successive packages of sanctions against the country. On the same front, the slogans raised by Hassan Rouhani's supporters during the electoral campaign invoked aspirations of the Green Movement in terms of political opening and democratic change; these slogans were echoed to a certain point by Rouhani's electoral promises.

Rouhani's presidency could provide an example for the Iranian opposition in terms of benefiting from their past mistakes, especially given that he occupies a middle ground between the Reformists and the Fundamentalists, and he intends to form his cabinet with people from both camps, as well as figures close to Rafsanjani. Rouhani can also exploit his close relationship with the Supreme Guide Ali al-Khamenei in order to achieve the promised reforms.

These advantages can help the president-elect win two major challenges: firstly, satisfying the aspirations of the reform-oriented voters who helped him arrive to the presidency, especially by bringing back reformist leaders and talents into the political arena and the state apparatus, pushing for the release of political prisoners, and lifting Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi's house arrest. Secondly, he will be able to satisfy the economic aspirations of the popular classes, lead the country out of the tunnel of economic sanctions, and end the specter of military threats and the possibility of war with the West.

Facing these two challenges will not be an easy task given the complexity of Iranian political and constitutional proceedings, a fact that was affirmed in the cautious statements of the elected president in his first press conference; he predicted that his policy of resolving problematic issues, domestically and abroad, will proceed "step by step," adding that, in resolving such issues, decisions will require coordination and agreement with the other state institutions.

Doubtlessly, an important portion of Iran's economic problems is due to the repercussions of the failure of the negotiations with the West over its nuclear program, which will force the new president, based on his previous experience in managing the nuclear file, to exert great effort to convince the supreme guide and the Revolutionary Guard of the necessity to demonstrate flexibility in negotiations and introduce changes to the Iranian negotiation style because such actions would lead to decreasing the possibilities of a military confrontation and the lifting, or at least the reduction, of economic sanctions.

Regarding Syria, it is unlikely that there are major differences between the new president and the supreme guide over the Syrian crisis. According to the Iranian view, what is taking place in Syria greatly endangers Iranian national security; this fact resulted in the exclusion of Syria as a topic from the speeches of all presidential candidates, including Hassan Rouhani, despite the fact that they extensively discussed other foreign issues, such as the nuclear program and relations with the West. The reformist candidate Mohammad Reza Aref-who withdrew from the race-said during his campaign that the objective of what is taking place in Syria is Iran, and that no one can express a different position on the Syrian question.

If reports claiming that Iran is about to send 4,000 Revolutionary Guard soldiers to Syria turn out to be accurate, this would further confirm the unchanging Iranian stance toward the Syrian revolution. In fact, it is very likely that the success of the Iranian regime in mobilizing broad, popular participation in the elections would grant it greater ability to intervene in Syria and, perhaps, to make progress in the country.

In Iran, there are influential power centers within the regime that refuse to work under the government's umbrella or to reach a basic understanding with the presidency over the policies to be followed. This is most noticeable among the Revolutionary Guard and its affiliated security and economic institutions, the dominant political current within the Parliament, and the institution of the supreme guide, whose opinions and directives concerning all questions are considered final and decisive according to the constitution. Given that the majority of past presidents have been incapable of enforcing their programs due to the existence of these powers, Rouhani's presidency will be faced with one of the two following possibilities.

The president may succeed in reaching a relative understanding with the influential powers within the regime, which would lead to the realization of some of the popular demands for change and open the way for the effectuation of necessary political and economic reforms. This would help in not only mending the extensive damage that was caused by the Fundamentalists' monopoly over state institutions during the last eight years, but also in bridging the gap created between the state and civil society that was deepened by the events of 2009. This scenario would provide Iran with a real opportunity to exit its international and regional isolation; however, this would require that the influential power centers within the regime interpret the high participation rate in the elections as an expression of a desire for real and peaceful change, and not merely as a vote of confidence in Islamic Republic's regime and its domestic and foreign strategic choices.

Conversely, the new president may fail in convincing these powers to agree to share power according to the provisions of the constitution, which would propel the country into a new chapter of unending struggle between the institution of the presidency, on the one hand, and the institution of the supreme guide and its affiliated forces, on the other. This would produce new types of conflicts between the two camps that would reflect negatively on all vital sectors where the interests of these power centers are concentrated-the economy, the judiciary system, the security apparatus, the clerical institution, and the Parliament. This situation would exhaust the state, deepen society's crises, and delay the resolution of existing problems to a future date. It is likely that such a failure would even jeopardize the stability of the country.

*This Assessment was translated by the ACRPS Translation and English Editing Department. The original Arabic version published on December 4th, 2013 can be found here.