Saturday, June 15, 2013

Reactions to Rouhani's Big Victory

Here are my initial reactions and questions following the somewhat surprising result of the Iranian Presidential Election

1) There should be no doubts that the 2009 election was fraudulent. 
Many believe that the 2009 election where reformists Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi were slighted, was fixed in favor of the Supreme Leaders' favored candidate, Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nezhad (also known as Ahmadinejad). There were a number of inconsistencies including Mousavi being defeated in a landslide in his home province and that the election results were announced after only a few hours. This time there was clearly some sort of effort to count the ballots as the 40+ million cast took over 12 hours to count. 

2) Reformists and Moderates are still relevant in Iran
Another expectation about this election was that it would be either boycotted or have a low turnout. A mere 8 candidates were allowed to run (out of hundreds that registered and were not approved) and only 2 of these were not conservatives. Without many choices, why would anyone want to vote, especially if their vote would not be counted like in 2009? 

3) The Supreme Leader Khamenei is threatened
Hassan Rouhani has close ties to the ruling establishment (just like the other approved presidential candidates did), but he is closer to former president and pistachio magnate Hashemi Rafsanjani. As I have written multiple times, the Supreme Leader owes his current position (along with many other things) to Hashemi. Hashemi's family has been persecuted since raising questions about the integrity of the 2009 elections. This includes the assault and arrest of his daughter, and the arrest of his son. Another son was sacked as the head of the Tehran Metro. These were seen as efforts (endorsed by the Supreme Leader) to curtail Hashemi's influence. Another and probably more important step taken against Hashemi was his removal from the chairmanship of the Assembly of Experts in 2011. These all led to a situation where Khamenei is likely to be unhappy with the result and the potential power struggle with Hashemi, the only one with equal political history, influence, and revolutionary credentials.
In April Khamenei stated that any vote in the election is a vote for the Islamic Republic. He attempted to show that a high turn out validates the legitimacy of the electoral process and the Islamic Republic of Iran. However, two days before the election he changed course stating that everyone should vote even if they disagreed with the Islamic RepublicKhamenei then reversed course again saying that the original statement he made is valid. Khamenei's attempt to exploit Iranian nationalism and increase voter turnout shows that he may actually care about public opinion. The number of moderate votes will not be welcomed by Khamenei. 

4) The Supreme Leader is not THAT threatened
Despite this not being the "ideal" result for Khamenei, he also may not be so upset about it. Rouhani is a cleric who currently enjoys good relations with most parties in Iran. He did not receive as significant a mandate as former President Khatami, but due to his ties and his clerical background there is a good chance that he will be less radical than Khatami (I realize Khatami is not a liberal but this is a relative comparison). Rouhani does not have the religious stature to challenge Khamenei on clerical matters, and this will always be on Rouhani's mind. When Khamenei's handpicked candidate from the 2009 election Ahmadi Nezhad started acting in a manner which Khamenei did not appreciate. This included firing members of his cabinet who Khamenei then forced him to reinstate. Because of Rouhani's connections to the clergy, a problem like this does not seem to be likely.

5) Will the foreign policy change?
The Supreme Leader is in charge of all major foreign policy decisions and the country's armed forces, but the actions and words of the president can also have a big impact. Under Ahmadi-Nezhad, Iran's foreign policy took on an increasingly combative tone. While they had sponsored terrorism and continued to do so (see 1994 AMIA bombing purportedly green lit by President Rafsanjani, not to mention their ties to Hezbollah), Ahmadi-Nezhad's hostility towards Israel and holocaust denial was incredibly damaging to Iran's reputation. How much will Rouhani tone this down and try to bring about more diplomacy with the West? He is considered to be a pragmatist along with his close mentor Hashemi (who even at one point indicated that he was ok with US intervention in Bosnia if it was done correctly) so it would seem likely that there will be some foreign policy change. 

6) Can Reform happen in Iran?
While reformist former president Khatami is still wildly popular in Iran, he is considered by academics to have been an ineffective and weak leader during his two terms (he won both elections in an overwhelming landslide). An example about which I've written before before, was how his attempt to raise the age of marriage from 9 to 13 years. Because of opposition in the majles, this 'change' is a non-compulsory law and does not have to be enforced. Will reformists feel empowered by Rouhani's victory and make an effort to campaign for changes? Will they try to run in the next elections rather than boycotting like the last one?

7) Which way will Rouhani turn?
Will Rouhani pull a Khamenei and betray/abandon those who helped him gain power or will he respect his campaign promises and free political activists, journalists and Mousavi and Karroubi (who are still under house arrest after more than 2 years). Will he attempt to create changes in the economic system (one of the presidents key tasks)? Will he allow the press to become more free? If he does wish to and attempts to make any changes, will the Supreme Leader and the still conservative Majles allow him to, or will he be another Khatami?

UPDATE 1: mentioned Twitter posts by Khamenei on voter turnout.

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