Daily Archives: June 18, 2013

Iran 2013

The first round of presidential elections were held in Iran on June 14, 2013. The President of Iran (رئیس‌جمهور ایران) is elected by universal suffrage to a four-year term and is limited to serve two consecutive terms, but may run for a third nonconsecutive term even after having served two consecutive terms. The Iranian President is the highest directly-elected official in the country, but Iran is not a presidential republic and the President is hardly the highest authority in the country. Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran is a theocratic Islamic republic.

Iran’s political system

The Islamic Republic is governed on the basis of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s theory of velayat-e faqih which holds that, in the absence of the Twelfth Imam of Shi’a Islam (the Mahdi, who disappeared and is believed to be in occultation), the state should be ruled by a ‘guardian jurist’. Article 5 of the Iranian constitution reads: “During the occultation of the Wali al-‘Asr (may God hasten his reappearance), the leadership of the Ummah devolve upon the just and pious person, who is fully aware of the circumstances of his age, courageous, resourceful, and possessed of administrative ability.” In practice, this ‘just and pious person’ is the Supreme Leader, currently Ali Khamenei, who succeeded Khomeini upon his death in 1989. The Supreme Leader of Iran is the real head of state.

The Supreme Leader appoints the leaders of the most powerful institutions in Iran: the commanders of the armed forces, the director of state radio and TV, the heads of the major religious foundations, the prayer leaders in city mosques, the members of national security council and the head of the judiciary. In addition, the Supreme Leader appoints six of the twelve members of the influential Guardian Council. Theoretically, the Supreme Leader is appointed by (and can be impeached by) and responsible to the Assembly of Experts, a directly-elected body of 86 clerics. However, the Assembly of Experts is subservient to the Supreme Leader, given that candidates for the  Assembly of Experts – alongside candidates for all other offices in Iran (the presidency, the Parliament) – must be vetted and approved by the Guardian Council.

The Guardian Council is made of up twelve members: six Islamic clerics appointed by the Supreme Leader himself, and another six jurists elected by the Parliament (Majles) from candidates nominated by the chief of the judiciary (who is, in turn, nominated by the Supreme Leader). The Guardian Council has power as legislative, judicial and electoral authority. It must approve all bills passed by the Majles, it has the power to veto bills, it interprets the constitution and it vets all candidates for President, parliament and the Assembly of Experts. The unelected Expediency Council resolves disputes between the Majles and the Guardian Council.

Simplified diagram of Iran’s political structure (source: BBC.co.uk)

The Supreme Leader may also count on the full support of the Revolutionary Guards, a 125-thousand strong military unit (or militia) which is extremely powerful. It is a conservative bulwark against reformism and opposition to the regime, and has the power to block major initiatives and promote its own ultra-conservative agenda. The Revolutionary Guards have become very powerful under Ali Khamenei, who has needed to build a large network of powerful supporters to assert his legitimacy (as we shall see, he assumed power as Supreme Leader with fairly limited legitimacy in 1989). The Revolutionary Guards control a large share of the heavily state-controlled Iranian economy, the Revolutionary Guards hold important stakes in oil, petrochemicals, telecoms, agrifood, electronics, armaments and infrastructure. For example, the Guard’s business conglomerate – Khatam ol-Anbia – have a subcontractor which employs 25,000 and has worked in over 1800 infrastructure projects. The Revolutionary Guards also have a large intelligence operation, a foreign operations division which trains Iranian allies such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Revolutionary Guards veterans now form the dominant elite in Iranian politics. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a former Guard, and most high-profile cabinet posts and a majority of seats in Parliament are now held by Guard veterans. Replacing the previously dominant clerical elites.

The power amassed by the Revolutionary Guards, especially after the regime’s brutal crackdown on post-election protests in 2009, has led some to claim that Iran has transformed from a theocracy to a military dictatorship.

The President is the second highest authority in the country after the Supreme Leader, and the Iranian presidency is not an irrelevant office – the President may not control the military, national security and foreign policy, but he does have some amount of influence over Tehran’s general orientation (even in matters of foreign policy) and has significant power over economic and domestic policies. The President appoints Vice Presidents, the cabinet (which is confirmed by the Majles), sits in the Supreme National Security Council (which notably deals with nuclear energy issues), declares war and states of emergency and serves a deputy commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

The constitution’s definition of the qualifications of the Presidents are open-ended and left to the interpretation of the Guardian Council: candidates must possess ‘administrative capacity and resourcefulness’, have ‘a good past record’, exhibit ‘trustworthiness and piety’ and hold ‘convinced belief in the fundamental principles of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the official madhhab (doctrine) of the country’. The constitution is vague on whether or not women may run for office, but the Guardian Council has ruled that only males can run for the presidency and it has never approved female candidates for the presidency.

The Guardian Council significantly reduces the field of presidential contenders from hundreds to a handful. It cuts out a lot of unknown quixotic candidates, any women candidates but has also – controversially – struck down some more notable candidates. This year, it confirmed only eight out of 686 candidates. While the Guardian Council has approved reformist candidates – even some critical of the regime’s direction – it is fairly clear that approved candidates are tolerated by the Supreme Leader.


The first President of Iran after the Shah was overthrown and the Islamic Republic established in 1979 was Abulhassan Banisadr (who assumed the presidency in February 1980), a non-cleric. Ayatollah Khomeini originally insisted that the presidency should be held by non-clerics. However, Banisadr soon fell out of favour with Ayatollah Khomeini and was promptly impeached after a bit over a year in office in June 1981. He is now an exiled dissident, living in France. Mohammad-Ali Rajai of the Islamic Republican Party (IRP) was elected with 91% in July 1981, but he was assassinated after less than a month in office (in August 1981) by the opposition People’s Mujahedin of Iran.

The first Iranian president of any relevance was Ali Khamenei, the current Supreme Leader, who served as President under Ayatollah Khomeini between October 1981 and August 1989. Mir-Hossein Mousavi served as his Prime Minister. Ali Khamenei’s presidency was marked quasi-entirely by the Iran-Iraq War, which lasted between September 1980 and August 1988. Domestically, the early years after the Islamic Revolution were fairly tumultuous, with armed opposition and nonviolent protests against the new regime. Tehran responded with repression and terror: thousands of members of insurgent groups were killed (notably in 1988 with the mass executions of People’s Mujahedin of Iran prisoners), ethnic and religious minorities faced (and continue to face, in large part) persecution (or, at best, state-sanctioned discrimination or exclusion from politics) and the government imposed a strict (often restrictive) moral code based on sharia law – a major break, of course, with the Western-oriented secularism of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s autocratic rule. On the diplomatic scene, Iran was isolated from the major regional and world powers – relations with the United States, the former Shah’s top ally, had been dead since the 1979-1980 hostage crisis (although the US played to both sides during the Iran-Iraq war, covertly provided Iran with weapons through Iran-Contra), the Soviet Union was hostile to the new religious fundamentalist power in Tehran (although it too played both sides against each other during the conflict) and the Sunni Gulf monarchies feared that Iran would revitalize domestic Islamist/Shi’a opposition (notably Saudi Arabia).

Presidents under Ayatollah Khomeini’s rule played a fairly subdued rule, in comparison to Presidents since the 1990s. Ayatollah Khomeini held the bulk of the powers, while the President and Prime Minister competed for the spoils. Khomeini died in June 1989 and was succeded by Ali Khamenei, even though he was only a mid-level Shi’a cleric (Hojatoleslam) rather than, as the constitution originally required, a marja’ (source of emulation – high-level cleric). Khamenei, however, was a loyal associate of the late Khomeini. In March 1989, Khomeini’s original designated heir, Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri had been sidelined after a series of comments critical of the regime, particularly human rights abuses and Khomeini’s fatwa against author Salman Rushdie. Montazeri challenged Khamenei’s legitimacy to be Supreme Leader, and became a vocal dissident until his death in 2009.

Khamenei was succeeded as President by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the speaker of Parliament since 1980. Rafsanjani, a theologian who hailed from an elite family, was a pragmatic conservative who focused his efforts on economic reconstruction after the Iran-Iraq war and escaping Iran’s international isolation. He liberalized the economy, measures which proved popular with the middle and upper-class elites of the new Islamic Republic, but which bypassed the poorer, rural population which grew to dislike Rafsanjani. Between 1990 and 1995, Iran suffered the effects of the second ‘wave’ of US economic sanctions which caused the Iranian Rial’s value to plunge by 80%. Under his presidency, political opponents and certain religious minorities continued to be persecuted. Throughout Rafsanjani’s administration, he feuded with ultraconservative elements of the regime, which, with the Supreme Leader’s backing, controlled several institutions (notably the Revolutionary Guards).

In the 1997 election, Mohammad Khatami, a darkhorse reformist cleric, defeated the conservative favourite in a landslide, taking over 70% of the vote by the first round. He was carried to victory by the urban middle-classes eager for reform, women, the youth (students) and ethnic/religious minorities. He was reelected to a second term in 2001, this time with 78%.

Khatami promised democratization, rule of law, more rights for women and minorities, easing strict moral laws and liberalizing the economy. Economically, where Iran’s president is the most powerful, Khatami pursued his predecessor’s liberalization policies, aimed at industrialization, promoting private sector growth, boosting investment and privatizing a wide array of state-owned companies (the Islamic Revolution was followed by a string of nationalizations). His policies were somewhat successful, but unemployment remained a major problem and economic recovery could only go so far with the economic sanctions against Iran. After 2001, the Bush administration in Washington continued to isolate Iran, despite Khatami’s reformist desires, labelling Iran as a member of the (in)famous “Axis of evil”. Domestically, many of his reformist efforts were undermined by the Supreme Leader and the conservative institutions. Rogue elements in the conservative-dominated security apparatus murdered a number of dissidents, part of a ‘serial murder of dissidents’ began in 1988. In 1999, paramilitary groups (Revolutionary Guard, Basij) crushed a large student uprising. The conservative judiciary closed a number of new reformist newspapers, many of which had flourished after Khatami’s election. The Parliament

After 2003, the conservatives were resurgent. There was a real backlash, fueled by disillusion with Khatami’s inability to advance his reformist agenda and his perceived inaction. The conservatives were able to mobilize public opinion by playing on issues such as national security or the nuclear program. However, to be sure, the conservatives were helped in their efforts by the Guardian Council. In the 2003 local elections and then the 2004 parliamentary elections, the Guardian Council banned thousands of candidates from standing, including incumbent reformist MPs and many other reformist candidates. Conservatives on better terms with the Supreme Leader won a wide majority in the Majlis.

The 2005 presidential election was one of the most disputed elections in Iranian history, and the only one which went to a second round ballot. In the first round, former President Rafsanjani won 21%, while Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the underdog conservative populist mayor of Tehran, squeaked through and placed second with 19.4%. The reformist vote was split between three candidates (Mehdi Karroubi with 17.2%, Mostafa Moeen with 13.9% and Mohsen Mehralizadeh with 4.4%). In the second round, Ahmadinejad defeated Rafsanjani with 61.7% of the vote.

Ahmadinejad’s election marked a conservative reaction after two terms of reformist ‘rule’. But it also marked a victory for populism over the (clerical) elitism embodied by Khatami and Rafsanjani. Ahmadinejad campaigned on an anti-corruption, anti-establishment populist conservative platform, which emphasized his ‘modest roots’. Indeed, unlike his predecessors, Ahmadinejad came from a working-class secular background, rather than from an elite or religious/clerical background. His father was a blacksmith and he was born in a small town 90km from Tehran

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s two terms in office do not require a lengthy explanation, considering how often Iran has made the news since 2005, often because of Ahmadinejad’s statements or actions. In general, his presidency has been marked by heightened tensions with the US and the west, a slide back into international isolation and pariah state status, a harsher enforcement of religious morality laws, a deterioration in human rights and womens’ rights, and a struggling economy (in part because of foreign sanctions).

On the foreign stage, Ahmadinejad gained notoriety for his vitriolic attacks on Israel or the United States or his various provocative acts (denying the Holocaust, the “wiping Israel off the map” comment – even if that comment was probably mistranslated) which have incensed public opinion in the west.

Like most Iranian politicians – even the reformists – Ahmadinejad is a vocal supporter of Iran’s controversial nuclear program. Although the United States and Europe believe that Iran could be developing nuclear weapons, the Iranian authorities have consistently said that they have no intentions of developing nuclear weapons and that their nuclear program is only for peaceful purposes. Tehran has defended its “sovereign right” to develop such a program. Iran has had a nuclear program since the 1950s, when the United States actively cooperated with the Shah’s regime to aid the development of a peaceful nuclear program.

However, because Iran has tended to be less than forthcoming about its intentions and the details of its nuclear programs, there remains very strong (and legitimate) suspicions that it is lying and covertly developing nuclear weapons. Such suspicions have been fueled by continued revelations of concealed plants (uranium conversion and enrichment plants in central Iran). Western nations contend that Iran has violated its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (signed by the Shah in 1968) various times.

Ahmadinejad, as President, does not directly deal with the nuclear program, but he has some degree of influence. Under his administration, Tehran has kept a hardline on the nuclear program and it has slid its feet in quixotic negotiations with Western powers while continuing to develop its nuclear program in the background. His predecessor, Khatami, had been slightly more pragmatic and consensual on the issue. He had expressed support, alongside Saudi Arabia and Syria, for an initiative to rid the Middle East of nuclear weapons. But Khatami did not have the final say in the program, and Iran continued to develop its civilian nuclear program under his rule (although Khamenei briefly suspended what appeared to be weapons-related technologies in 2003).

In 2006, Iran resumed uranium enrichment at Natanz, breaking a 2004 agreement with European countries. It later opened a heavy water plant. The UN responded with sanctions, while the United States (under Bush and since under Obama) and Israel launched cyberattacks on computer systems at Natanz. Negotiations between Iran and the west have invariably been unfruitful.

In September 2011, Iran opened its first civilian nuclear power plant, at Bushehr. The plant was built in close cooperation with Russia. The groundwork for the plant had been launched in 1974, before the revolution.

The response to Tehran’s defiant stance has been a whole wave of tough sanctions. Despite the pretensions to the contrary of the Iranian government, these sanctions have badly hurt the country’s economy and undermined domestic attempts to reform the economy. The UNSC approved the first round of sanctions back in December 2006 (banning the import and export of materials and technology used in uranium enrichment), and approved new sanctions in June 2010 (curtailing military purchases, trade and financial transactions by the Revolutionary Guards). In November 2011, new sanctions aimed at Iran’s central bank and commercial banks took effect, while the US imposed sanctions on companies involved in the nuclear, petrochemical and oil industries. In July 2012, the EU announced an embargo on Iranian oil which has severely restricted Iran’s ability to sell its top export. Iran has acknowledged that oil exports had fallen by 40% in 2012, at a major cost for Iran. Earlier this month, the Obama administration blacklisted what it describes as a global network of front companies controlled by the Iranian leadership, which the US alleges are used to hide assets and generate billions in revenues.

These sanctions have taken their toll on the Iranian economy, especially in recent months. In October 2012, the Iranian rial plunged by 40%. Inflation is raging, reaching 30% in 2012, its highest level since 1995. Inflation is projected to be 27% this year. In April 2013, Iranians rushed to supermarkets to hoard basic foodstuffs and goods, over new fears of price spikes from a change in the official exchange rate. However, economic sanctions are only part of the explanation – domestically, the Iranian government is guilty of woeful mismanagement of the economy.

Iran’s energy consumption has increased significantly in recent years, and because the country’s oil refining capacities are limited, it has been forced to import about 40% of its gasoline. The Iranian government spends huge amounts each year on unsustainable subsidies on food and energy (including fuel). In 2007, a gasoline rationing plan was introduced by the government, sparking large protests against Ahmadinejad’s government. The rationing plan ultimately failed. In 2010, the government announced an extremely ambitious subsidy reform which aimed to replace subsidies with targeted social assistance to the poorer families. As a result of the elimination of these subsidies, transportation prices skyrocketed and cash grants to poorer families was unable to compensate for the elimination of subsidies. The IMF and the World Bank have hailed this reform as a step in the right direction, but the reform’s success has been undermined by sanctions, government mismanagement and corruption.

Ahmadinejad was reelected in 2009, officially taking 62.6% of the votes in the first round against 33.8% for his reformist rival, former Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi. The opposition claimed to have won, and many believe that the election was rigged in Ahmadinejad’s favour. However, there has been no credible evidence to suggest that there was indeed massive fraud, of the kind which totally falsified the results. There was, to be sure, some fairly fishy things going on and there was likely, at the least, localized fraud or vote rigging. However, Ahmadinejad probably won the election – if there was rigging, it was probably not enough to make up for Ahmadinejad’s huge margin of victory.

Mass protests, the largest of the kind since 1979, swept through Tehran and other major cities across Iran between June and February 2010. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei unflinchingly backed President Ahmadinejad throughout the duration of the protests. The Revolutionary Guards and the Basij militias, both of which answer to the Supreme Leader, brutally repressed the protests, killing up to 70 protesters and arresting over 4,000. Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, another reformist candidate, have been under house arrest since February 2011.

Ahmadinejad’s second term was marked by a major rift between the President and the Supreme Leader. During his first term, Ahmadinejad had been seen as a fairly loyal ally of the Supreme Leader, who, in return, openly backed him in the runup to the 2009 election and provided him with the tools to remain in power despite the huge post-election protests. However, Ahmadinejad is an ambitious politician and sought to limit the clerics’ involvement in politics. In July 2009, Ahmadinejad irked Khamenei by nominating his close ally Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei to the office of First Vice President. Mashaei was forced to resign by Khamenei less than ten days after his resignation, but he has served as Ahmadinejad’s Chief of Staff throughout his second term. Like Ahmadinejad, Mashaei is a secular conservative who is hostile towards clerical involvement in politics. Additionally, Mashaei is regarded as a ‘heretic’ and ‘deviant’ by the Islamist leadership because of past conciliatory statements about Israel (he once remarked that Iranians are friends of Israelis) and his more relaxed views on religious matters. Rhetorically, Mashaei has also tended to go against the regime’s official rhetorical line (based on Shi’a Islamism and notions of pan-Islamism) and talked more along the lines of Persian nationalism.

In April 2011, Ahmadinejad dismissed intelligence minister Heydar Moslehi who was immediately reinstated by the Supreme Leader. Ahmadinejad protested by staging a 10-day long ‘walkout’ of cabinet meetings and other official functions, creating an anti-Ahmadinejad furor within religious conservative ranks which might have forced him to resign from office if he had not grudgingly accepted to end his act in May.

In the 2012 legislative elections, anti-Ahmadinejad conservatives crushed pro-Ahmadinejad conservatives (and reformists).


Iranian politics is often presented to foreign eyes as a battle between conservatives and reformists. To a certain extent, this dichotomy is true. However, it is also rather reductive in that it hides internal divisions within both the conservative and reformist tents. Ahmadinejad’s presidency, particularly his second term, highlighted the major divisions in the conservative coalition between secular, populist and nationalist conservatives like Ahmadinejad and Mashaei who wish to counter clerical influence in politics; and religious conservatives – known as ‘principlists’ – who are on better terms with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and adhere to Islamic fundamentalism which is more in line with Khamenei’s orientation. The term ‘reformist’ has been used to encompass a wide array of politicians more or less hostile to the conservative establishment (but still on good enough terms with it to be allowed to hold office) and supporting reforms (more civil rights, perhaps more rights for women and ethnic minorities, democratization and liberalization of the economy). Similar to the verligtes in apartheid South Africa, the Iranian reformists often seem to be misconstrued as being more radical and liberal than they actually are.

The Guardian Council approved only eight out of 686 presidential candidates. Most notably, it disqualified two major candidates. Of the eight candidates, two dropped out before the election, reducing the field to six.

Unsurprisingly, the Khamenei-controlled Guardian Council rejected Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei’s candidacy, which was widely seen as Ahmadinejad’s thinly-veiled bid for a third term. For the reasons outlined above, Mashaei was obviously unpalatable and a non-starter for the leadership.

Slightly more surprisingly, the Guardian Council rejected former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997), who is the current chairman of the Expediency Council. Rafsanjani, often described as a moderate conservative, has had a falling out with the Supreme Leader, probably because Rafsanjani is powerful in his own right and perhaps too independent and high-profile for Khamenei’s tastes, who has no desire for a repeat of  Ahmadinejad’s antics. Besides, while Rafsanjani didn’t back the 2009 protests, he indicated his desire for more freedom and less brutal crackdowns. The Guardian Council rejected Rafsanjani’s candidacy, and Khamenei did not intervene to nullify the Guardian Council’s decision (he had done so in 2005 to allow two reformists to run).

The disqualification of Mashaei meant that there was no pro-Ahmadinejad candidate in the race. Out of the eight original candidates, five could be considered as ‘principlist’ conservatives on good terms with Khamenei.

Saeed Jalili was originally hailed by local and international media alike as the ‘frontrunner’ and the ‘favourite’. Jalili has served as secretary of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), a position which made him Iran’s top nuclear negotiator in fruitless talks with western powers. Jalili, like Ahmadinejad and many of the ‘second generation’ of Iranian conservatives, served in the Revolutionary Guards during the Iran-Iraq war. During the conflict, Jalili saw heavy fighting and he lost a portion of his right leg. Jalili has never sought or won (to my knowledge) elected office and has served as a technocrat since the 1990s. After 2001, he worked in the Supreme Leader’s office. In 2005, Ahmadinejad appointed him as deputy minister for foreign affairs in charge of Europe and the Americas. In October 2007, he was named to the leadership of the SNSC, replacing Ali Larijani, a conservative who has since become speaker of the Majles. Jalili’s nomination was originally criticized because of his lack of experience, but he has gained a lot of goodwill with conservatives because of his tough, uncompromising stance in nuclear negotiations with Iran’s western rivals. He has often invoked the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists, which Tehran claims were organized by the US and Israel. As negotiator, he has twice refused bilateral meetings with the American representative on the 5+1 (US, Russia, China, UK, France, Germany).

Ironically, Jalili’s name recognition is probably higher in diplomatic circles outside Iran than with the Iranian electorate. Nevertheless, with his reputation as an ultraconservative loyal to the Supreme Leader – he was originally described as Khamenei’s preferred candidate. Early in the campaign, Jalili’s image as a simple and pious man boosted his image with the public, especially ultraconservative networks. At the same time, of all the conservative candidates, Jalili is also the one who was seen as being the less hostile to the much-subdued Ahmadinejad. Although Ahmadinejad has denied that he supported or voted for Jalili, in the final weeks there was a lot of buzz about how Jalili was Ahmadinejad’s secret candidate – some pro-Ahmadinejad politicians apparently endorsed Jalili. However, Jalili was backed by the Front of Islamic Revolution Stability, a conservative party led by two religious conservatives who have criticized Ahmadinejad and Mashaei’s “deviant movement” – Mashaei in particular is part of a minority which talks a lot about the imminent return of the Twelfth Imam, the Mahdi, something which really unnerves the regime’s Shi’a clerical elite.

The rumours of proximity to Ahmadinejad opened him to criticism from other presidential candidates, eager to tie him to the unpopular President and Ahmadinejad’s failed economic policies.

Late in the campaign, the Jalili buzz died down a bit and attention shifted to Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the popular conservative mayor of Tehran since 2005. Ghalibaf, only 18 when the Shah was overthrown, had a long military (Revolutionary Guard) or police career before entering elective politics in 2005. During the Iran-Iraq war, Ghalibaf rose through the ranks of the Revolutionary Guard at stunning speed to become commander. After the war, as a close supporter of Ali Khamenei, he was promoted to the rank of general and named as commander of the Revolutionary Guard’s air forces in 1997. He played a major role in the violent repression of the 1999 student protests, an experience he proudly shows off to this day. After the 1999 protests, Khamenei named him chief of the Iranian police force, a position in which he directed repression against students and journalists. As chief of police, he also created the 110 hotline, Iran’s equivalent of the 911.

Ghalibaf ran for president in 2005 (as a conservative, obviously), placing fourth with 13.9%. At the time, his reformist critics saw him as the ‘militarist’ candidate. After the election, he was elected mayor of Tehran by the capital’s city council (replacing Ahmadinejad) and has since successfully wrestled control of the city council from pro-Ahmadinejad conservatives. As mayor, he has modernized his image and managed (almost) to make people forget his militaristic past. His mayoral administration has been quite successful: he modernized public services, improved public transit, opened new green spaces and inaugurated a new subway line. In 2008, he was shortlisted for the ‘World Mayor’ award. Ghalibaf has never been allied to Ahmadinejad, and has minced no words in criticizing the President, especially since 2009. He was touted as a potential conservative rival to the incumbent in the 2009 race, but opted against running. Nevertheless, as mayor he had no problem in crushing the reformist ‘Green Movement’ after the 2009 election.

Ghalibaf is a principlist conservative – therefore on good terms with Ahmadinejad. Prior to the election, he formed a 2+1 principlist coalition with two other candidates – Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel (who dropped out) and Ali-Akbar Velayati. Ghalibaf has tried to reinvent himself as a moderate, pragmatic conservative; but he has had a tough time with that. Real reformists dislike him, and Ghalibaf still has a knack for proudly showing off his role in the repression of the 1999, 2003 and 2009 protests. Ghalibaf was supported by Ali Larijani, the current speaker of the Majles.

Ghalibaf’s other main ally in the 2+1 coalition was Ali-Akbar Velayati. Velayati, like Jalili, is a technocrat with a diplomatic career. Unlike Ghalibaf, Jalili and Ahmadinejad, however, Velayati does not belong to the ‘second generation’ of conservatives who came of age with the Revolutionary Guards during the Iran-Iraq war. He was a young dissident under the Shah’s regime (roughed up by the Shah’s ruthless secret police, the SAVAK) and became a parliamentarian in 1980. In 1981, Velayati was named foreign minister (under then-President Ali Khamenei’s Prime Minister, Mir-Hossein Mousavi), an office he held until 1997 (continuing under Rafsanjani). As foreign minister, Velayati managed the best of both worlds in Khamenei’s eyes – being a tough conservative while not being loathed and isolated by the international community. With fellow candidates Mohsen Rezaee, he is on the Interpol’s most wanted list for his alleged role in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires (Argentina), which killed 85. Argentina claims that Iran and Hezbollah were behind the attacks, and an Argentine judge issued an arrest warrant for Velayati in 2006. That same year, he was appointed to the Strategic Council on Foreign Relations and has been seen as the Supreme Leader’s main foreign policy adviser/ally. At times, he used this position to undermine Ahmadinejad’s policies on the world stage – there were (denied) rumours that, with Khamenei’s backing, he had been laying the groundwork for bilateral nuclear talks with the US.

Velayati is, naturally, a very close ally of Ali Khamenei and an opponent of Ahmadinejad. During one of the countless official debates, Velayati criticized Jalili for the ‘failure’ of nuclear negotiations (one of the first public criticisms from within the regime of the nuclear negotiations). He claims that Iran could have gotten acceptable deals out of the western powers at least three times, but each time Jalili’s hardline and Ahmadinejad’s obstinate refusals ‘sabotaged’ these deals. Nevertheless, Velayati is a conservative. He still favours a tough line against the United States and Israel, though he likely echoes Khamenei’s fears of Iran’s growing isolation as a result of Ahmadinejad’s presidency.

Only one candidate in the 2+1 coalition ended up dropping out before the vote: Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel, the weakest of the three-men coalition. An opponent under the Shah’s regime, he served in various governmental offices (mostly related to cultural or religious/moral affairs) and was speaker of the Majles between 2004 and 2008. Out of all the candidates, he was probably the closest to Khamenei. His daughter is married to Motjaba Khamenei, the son of the Supreme Leader who is widely seen as a potential successor to his father as Supreme Leader. Motjaba Khamenei is quite rich and has a strong base of support with the ultraconservative Basij and Revolutionary Guards, which might make up for his near total lack of theological credentials. He dropped out on June 11 without endorsing a single candidate, instead calling on his supporters to vote for one of the hardline conservatives.

The final conservative candidate was Mohsen Rezaee, who ran for president in 2005 (dropped out) and 2009 (third, 1.7%). He has served as secretary general of the Expediency Discernment Council (the body which resolves disputes between the Guardian Council and the Majles, presided by Rafsanjani) since 1997, and was commander of the Revolutionary Guards between 1981 and 1997. During the Shah’s regime, he was held in solitary confinement by SAVAK and later quit university to join an Islamist guerrilla group. After the Iran-Iraq war, Rezaee also founded Khatam Al-Anbia, an engineering firm controlled by the Revolutionary Guards, gained a doctorate in economics and – allegedly – played a role in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community centre in Argentina. He is on Interpol’s most wanted list.

He dropped out of the 2005 presidential elections two days before polling day, so as to not split the conservative vote, and placed a paltry third with only 1.7% in the 2009 election. After the election, he denounced the official results, but as a conservative he did not join Mousavi and Karroubi’s Green Movement and dropped his complaints after the Supreme Leader’s warnings.

He presented himself as a pragmatic independent conservative focused on economic issues – he was one of the few candidates with economic credentials. He supports economic diversification, decentralization to local governments and wished to continue Ahmadinejad’s subsidy reform. Born in Khuzestan Province, a southwestern province bordering Iraq with an ethnically diverse population (Iranian Arabs, Lurs), he promised to include members of ethnic minorities (including Kurds) in his cabinet.

The ‘surprise’ candidate of the field of eight/six was Seyed Mohammad Gharazi, an obscure politician whose political heyday was in the 1980s and 1990s – when he served as minister of petroleum (1981-1985) and minister of posts (1985-1997). An independent candidate with a leftist background (like Mir-Hossein Mousavi), he focused his largely irrelevant campaign on economic issues – first and foremost inflation. At 71, he was the oldest candidate.

Hassan Rouhani (source: salon.com)

Hassan Rouhani, a moderate, was the only religious cleric in the field. Rohani, a member of the Assembly of Experts (since 1999), the Expediency Council (since 1991) and the Supreme National Security Council (since 1989). He served as deputy speaker of the Majles between 1992 and 2000 and, as secretary of the SNSC between 1989 and 2005 he was Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator.

Born to a religious and dissident family in 1948, he started religious studies in Qom in 1960 (at the age of 12) but also followed legal studies at the University of Tehran (bachelor’s degree, 1972) and gained a masters (1995) and later a PhD (1999) at Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland. He was active in Khomeini’s Islamist movement prior to the Islamic Revolution, and returned to Iran to serve in the Majles as early as 1979 (he served in the legislature until 2000). During the Iran-Iraq war, he was Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces between 1986 and 1991. After being named to the head of the SNSC in 1989, he gained the confidence of the Supreme Leader and, especially, then-President Rafsanjani. Rafsanjani appreciated his moderate conservatism and his talents as a negotiator.

He gained international prominence between 2002 and 2005, during the first years of the Iranian ‘nuclear crisis’. In 2003, right after the American invasion of Iraq and the discovery of Iran’s covert nuclear program, Rouhani managed to convince Khamenei of accepting a temporary suspension of uranium enrichment. In these pre-Ahmadinejad day, Tehran was more inclined towards compromise and reassuring the US and the main European powers (UK, Germany, France). However, his conciliatory stance did not please the Supreme Leader, who eventually replaced him as head of the SNSC with the more conservative Larijani in 2005 and Jalili in 2007. Rouhani claims that his 2003 compromise with the European ‘Troika’ saved Iran from an “American-Israeli invasion”. However, radicals and ultraconservatives accused him of conceding too much to the Troika and weakening Iran. Saeed Jalili’s spokesperson, for example, has been very critical of Rouhani’s moderation in the handling of the nuclear dossier between 2003 and 2005.

Rouhani is a close supporter of former President Rafsanjani, who was barred from running. Like Rafsanjani, Rouhani is a moderate – centrist – conservative who has often been described as a reformist. Before the Guardian Council approved him and during the campaign, Rouhani publicly said that Mousavi and Karroubi, the leaders of the 2009 Green Movement, should be released from house arrest. He also criticized the methods of the Basij/Revolutionary Guards and called for more civil rights.

Khamenei must at least tolerate Rouhani since the Guardian Council allowed him to run. However, on June 10, two Iranian news agencies (Fars, which is controlled by the Revolutionary Guards, and Mehr) suggested that Rouhani would be disqualified prior to the election.

Rouhani started the campaign as a little-known candidate in the single digits, but got a huge wave of momentum in the final stretch. He received Rafsanjani’s support, and, on June 11, reformist candidate Mohammad Reza Aref dropped out and endorsed him. Aref, who was former President Mohammad Khatami’s candidate, had been pressured to drop out and coalesce the reformist  vote behind the moderate Rouhani by Khatami himself. Mohammad Reza Aref had served as Khatami’s First Vice President between 2001 and 2005.

Results and aftermath

Turnout was 72.7%, down from 85% in 2009 – but there are claims that turnout was inflated in 2009 because of vote rigging.

Hassan Rouhani (moderate/reformist) 50.71%
Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf (Principlist conservative) 16.55%
Saeed Jalili (hardline conservative) 11.35%
Mohsen Rezaee (independent conservative) 10.58%
Ali-Akbar Velayati (Principlist conservative) 6.18%
Mohammad Gharazi (independent/moderate) 1.21%

Iranian elections often end in surprises. In 1997, Khatami – the dark horse reformist – defeated the conservative ‘favourite’ with nearly 70% of the vote. In 2005, Ahmadinejad – the populist conservative who had not been expected to win – defeated conservative rivals in the first round and went on to win three-fifths of the vote in a runoff against a former President. This election was no different. The ‘favourites’ and ‘frontrunners’ – basically Jalili and Ghalibaf – did poorly, with only 16.6% and 11.4% respectively. The winner was somebody which few people had noticed in the first days of the campaign, and whose momentum came very late in the campaign. The winner was also somebody quite far removed from the conservatism which has been ascendant in Iranian politics since 2005.

Rouhani’s success was not entirely unexpected, because the most reliable pollster had shown him surging in the final days – first surpassing Ghalibaf on 8-11 June and then widening his advantage in their final, 9-12 June poll. He went from 14% and fourth place (behind Ghalibaf, whose support had been dropping from nearly 40% to the mid-20s, Jalili and Rezaee) on 7-11 June to 32% on 9-12 June. What was unexpected, however, was that he won a huge landslide – 51% by the first round! Most people had been expecting that, like in 2005, the first round would be exceptionally divided between the five fairly strong contenders and that the election would be decided on June 21 in a second round ballot. Few were certain who would qualify for the second round ballot, though in the final days it was probably a good bet to say that it would oppose Rouhani and Ghalibaf. Those harbouring suspicions about Iran’s electoral process (especially after 2009) felt that Rouhani was too moderate and close to the shunned reformists to be “allowed” to win by the Supreme Leader and the powers that be.

Overly high expectations? (source: Der Standard, Austria)

Even though Rouhani’s more conservative past and his past proximity to Khamenei (and Rafsanjani) might have potentially made it harder for him to rally reformist votes, his victory was likely built on a massive outpouring of reformist and moderate support for his candidacy. The reformists, including actors of the 2009 Green Movement – well, those which aren’t rotting in jail – coalesced around his candidacy, with little second thoughts, after their leaders – Khatami, Aref and Rafsanjani (to a lesser extent) – endorsed Rouhani. The result is that Rouhani’s grassroots supporters are probably far more radical than he is. He is more centrist than reformist and goes out of his way to emphasize his ‘moderation’. However, in large urban rallies celebrating his victory, his supporters chanted Mir-Hossein Mousavi’s name and celebrated the loathed Ahmadinejad’s removal from office.

The high turnout serves as proof of Rouhani’s ability to rally the reformist voters. A day before the vote, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei called on all Iranians – even those who “do not support the Islamic system” – to vote. Khamenei and the Iranian leadership had a major interest in ensuring that turnout was very high, which they wished to use as proof that their regime still enjoys popular legitimacy and to counter western claims that the regime is crumbling against popular dissatisfaction.

In sharp contrast with the bloodshed and mass protests which followed Ahmadinejad’s contested 2009 reelections, the results of this election have been met with calm on both sides. All the major actors – the conservative candidates, Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards – all issued messages of goodwill congratulating Rouhani and pledging to work with him. The young Iranian students and reformist activists who took the streets did so to celebrate Rouhani’s victory and Ahmadinejad’s upcoming departure. In this sense, the election is a blessing for Khamenei and the high echelons of the Islamic Republic, who can now claim renewed legitimacy after the 2009 clusterfark.

Results by province have not been released yet, although Wikipedia seems to be in the process of creating (a fairly unclear and messy) map of the results and providing results by province. With such a huge margin, Rouhani was likely victorious in most of the country – the urban centres which are often seen as reformist bastions but also the conservative small towns and interior where Ahmadinejad triumphed in 2005 and 2009. It appears as if Rezaee might have won his native Khuzestan province, and perhaps he did well in other provinces with large ethnic minorities – such as Kurdistan, Kermanshah or Loristan. The reformist movement has usually been fairly strong in provinces such as these, the Azeri provinces or Sistan and Baluchestan, with large non-Persian ethnic minorities or Sunni Muslim minorities (in Khorasan, Kurdistan and West Azerbaijan).

Iran’s ethnic and religious diversity – an often underestimated factor (source: Wikipedia)

Rouhani’s wide victory reflects deep-seated popular dissatisfaction with outgoing President Ahmadinejad, who leaves office as a controversial and unpopular President turned into a lame duck because of his feud with Khamenei. His victory owes a lot to domestic conditions – an economic recession, high inflation, failed economic policies, the economic problems caused by foreign sanctions and high unemployment. Although Iranian conservatives downplay it, there is at least a partial link between international sanctions, bred by Iran’s stance on its nuclear program, and the country’s economic troubles. Many voters likely made that link as well.

Among the other candidates, Jalili was likely perceived as too hardline and uncompromising on the nuclear issue and inexperienced on other issues. Velayati was never a top contender, being far too technocratic for that. Rezaee was never a very high-profile contender either. Ghalibaf was a strong candidate on paper, given his conservative anti-Ahmadinejad credentials and his fairly good record as mayor of Tehran, so I’m not so sure why his support tanked like it did. Was he seen as too conservative? Was he hurt by his ‘militaristic’ past and incessantly boasting about how he mowed down ‘subversives’ thrice?

We should always keep in mind that the President of Iran is not the highest source of authority in Iranian politics – the real powers, especially on touchy topics such as foreign policy and nuclear issues – are still in the hands of the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, who is clearly far more conservative and ‘hawkish’ than his President-elect is. Nevertheless, the Iranian President does have some relevance in the game and some degree of influence. Rouhani’s victory should not be cynically dismissed as an irrelevant realpolitik move by Khamenei. Rouhani won’t change the world and he might not be what he is expected to be.

Yet, he will have some leverage and could, at the very least, tone down the hardline rhetoric just a bit and make Tehran more amenable to compromise than it was under Ahmadinejad’s presidency. He has stressed moderation, diplomacy, pragmatism and engagement with the US and its partners. He has a record as a real ‘negotiator’ rather than an uncompromising representative (like Jalili was), and he earned the sobriquet of the “diplomatic sheikh” during his two-year stint as Iran’s nuclear go-to guy.

Basically all Iranian politicians – conservatives and reformists alike – support the country’s nuclear program and nobody is going to dismantle it and throw their hands up. A vast majority of Iranians see the nuclear program (and the technological/scientific advances and prestige it gives) as a source of national pride and a repudiation of foreign mingling (which has been going on for hundreds of years). Rouhani says he wants a peaceful nuclear program, though the eternal question is how far he or any other Iranian politician is going to take the program to inch towards an actual weapon. Rouhani, as aforementioned, supports engagement and constructive dialogue/compromise with the west.

However, in a 2004 speech, while saying that Iran needs to engage the west through diplomatic channels, he noted that Iran’s strategy of slow-playing the west with negotiations/compromises has allowed the country to continue developing its nuclear program covertly. He says that, while nuclear negotiator, his top concern was to stall and drag out talks while Iranian scientists pushed nuclear technology forward behind closed doors. Therefore, Rouhani should not be seen as somebody who is willing to sacrifice strategic aspects of Iran’s cherished but controversial nuclear program. He strongly supports the (civilian) nuclear program, and wants to push it to its conclusion which will force the west to ‘deal with it’ – just like they were forced to ‘deal with it’ when Pakistan got the bomb in 1998. He does have a genuine interest, or so it seems, in improving diplomatic ties with the west. But not at the cost of “surrendering”.

Rouhani’s ‘reformist’ credentials – if any – have not yet been proven. He promised to release Mousavi and Karroubi from house arrest and would also like to release political prisoners from 2009, but he has warned that such things will require time and patience – meaning that he needs to convince Khamenei that it’s a good idea. Rouhani, like almost all reformists, remains an “insider” with a long political career working inside the Islamic Republic’s state apparatus. That means that there will not – there cannot – be overnight transformations, and any reforms will be moderate and gradual. He needs to maneuver with a state apparatus which is otherwise dominated by conservative allies of the Supreme Leader. The Majles is dominated by principlist conservatives, presided by Ali Larijani. The Guardian Council, the courts and most importantly the Revolutionary Guards are ultraconservative bulwarks controlled by the Supreme Leader. We should remember how these institutions and the regime’s ideological paramilitaries successfully thwarted Khatami’s reformist agenda and destroyed the reformist wave after 2003-2004.

It is worth pointing out that the top concern in this election was the economy, not foreign policy (although, again, in Iran, both are linked). Rouhani has said that his priorities will be fixing the economy, reducing unemployment and tackling high inflation.

Cynical voices suspicious of Iran’s very controlled and curtailed illiberal democracy believe that Rouhani was handpicked by the Supreme Leader as a ‘moderate’ which would give him domestic legitimacy and reduce tensions with the west with the least coast to Iran. It could certainly be a calculated effort by Khamenei et al to give the outward appearance of moderation and reform and regain domestic and international legitimacy after the 2009 crisis. Khamenei felt increasingly threatened and fragilized by the 2009 protests, which was the first time that popular anger was directed not only at his lackeys and hapless Presidents but at him directly. In the past, he had a teflonic ability to deflect unpopularity and criticism by placing the blame on unpopular decisions and economic troubles on others – like the President. The more radical elements of the 2009 Green Movement directly targeted him and events like Ayatollah Montazeri’s funeral in 2009 became opportunities for public denunciations of the regime’s ruling elite. One might also assume that Khamenei is at least a little concerned by the international isolation of his country and the economic impact it has had. He is clearly a hardline conservative on nuclear matters, but he is not suicidal. He wants to push the nuclear program forward while reducing tensions with the west. Rouhani provides him with a tool to do just that. Finally, Rouhani is a religious cleric – unlike the other candidates and the outgoing President. As such, he won’t be like Ahmadinejad/Mashaei and lead a crusade against religious involvement in politics.

Iran’s top echelons are fine strategists, and we should not put such a calculated manipulation of the election beyond them. But it is perhaps overly cynical to see Rouhani as Khamenei’s tools. Plenty of other conservative candidates would have been just as useful to further Khamenei’s objectives – sure, Jalili was a bit too radical and Ghalibaf might have been too independent and turned into Ahmadinejad 2.0, but I think it’s pretty clear that Rouhani was not Khamenei’s favourite (unless Khamenei is even more Machiavellian than previously assumed).

Basically put, Khamenei had nothing to lose with Rouhani’s victory and he will probably be able to use it to his advantage, but it’s unclear whether he really had something big to gain from it.

Unless we subscribe to the cynic view of the matter in which the election was entirely manipulated by Tehran’s high echelons for self-interested purposes, Iran’s presidential election is quite significant. It is unwise to see it as a victory for reformism and overnight transformations, or to view it as a sign that Iran will suddenly back down on the contentious nuclear issue and hand victory to the west. It is more of a sign that President Ahmadinejad leaves office with a terrible record of civil rights abuses, unprecedented isolation and crippling sanctions, an economy in shambles and a feud with Khamenei which made his entire second term quasi-irrelevant. Out of these conditions, a ‘moderate’ like Rouhani who promised to fix the economy, democratize things a tiny bit and patch up diplomatic ties with the west while still moving forward on the nuclear dossier was able to win a landslide victory; appealing to 2009 Green Movement activists, reformists, moderate conservatives and many depoliticized Iranians eager for a change and way out of the impasse which Ahmadinejad has led them into since 2005.