Iran Election Watch 2013: Final Edition – Why did Rouhani’s election victory seem unlikely and why did he win?

As the smoke clears from the 2013 Iranian presidential election, the surprise election of Hassan Rouhani as the seventh president of Iran continues to dumbfound even the most astute observers of Iran. We here at IranPolitik must confess that we viewed a Rouhani victory, in the first round of voting no less, as a very unlikely scenario. Yet many have already begun discussing the implications of Rouhani’s election without really understanding why it has happened. Thus, as we take stock of our Iran Election Watch 2013 series of articles – 14 in all – we have asked ourselves a number of questions: Why did Rouhani’s victory seem so unlikely and why did he actually end up winning?

In analyzing the 2013 election we focused on the balance of power between the regime and social forces as well as the balance between political currents within the regime. We argued that in the context of the election social forces were weakened and atomized as a result of heavy state repression: Many activists of all stripes were imprisoned or remained in prison if they had been arrested before; there was a heavy presence by security forces throughout the country; the media was kept on a tight leash and foreign-based broadcasters were heavily jammed and their employees targeted with intimidation; and the global Internet, a major mechanism for social mobilization, was heavily filtered and slowed to a trickle. This meant that social forces would be unable to bring about changes to the election’s outcome from outside the electoral process, as the Green Movement attempted to.

We also argued that due to Iranians’ deep sense of cynicism and pessimism regarding whether the regime would actually count Iranians’ votes, the relatively shorter campaigning season this election, and the disqualification of Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani from standing for the presidency, there was also unlikely to be an electoral wave before the 14 June vote on the model of the Second of Khordad Movement in 1997 or the Green Wave before the 12 June vote in 2009. This meant social forces would have limited opportunities to bring about changes to the country’s overall political trajectory from inside the electoral process. The absence of an electoral wave, we contended, would favor Principalists who have historically performed better in elections where turnout was low. While social forces were hard pressed to create significant political changes from outside of the electoral process, we were mistaken about the extent to which social forces would be able to create change from inside the electoral process. The “Violet Wave”, which unexpectedly came to life in the final days of the campaign once Mohammad-Reza Aref withdrew and enabled the creation of a Centrist-Reformist coalition, was crucial for the election of Rouhani as president in the first round of voting. However, beyond the Violet Wave there was perhaps a more decisive factor which we considered unlikely: The 14 June vote appears to have actually been a competitive election. We believe that this is one of the essential puzzle of the 2013 Iranian presidential election: Why did the regime count the Iranian electorate’s votes in 2013, when they appear to not have done so in 2009, and allow the election to become a referendum on the regime’s foreign policy and its strategic discourse of “resistance”?

For this we must look to the balance of power between political currents within the regime. We envisioned the Neo-Principalists, and to a lesser extent Traditional Principalists, as being the most powerful political current in the regime. In contrast, we viewed the Centrists, Reformist, and Ahmadinejad-Mashaei Current as being marginalized to varying degrees. For us the implication of this  balance of power was the 2013 election was likely to be semi-competitive, meaning that the real competition in this election was between Principalists:

“We argued in our previous article that the IRGC has set criteria regarding its ideal candidate which strongly favor Saeed Jalili. However, there are circumstances under it could pay heed to Iranian voters and shift its support behind another candidate. The IRGC is keenly aware of IRGC-phobia (Sepah-harassi) and the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy issues since 2009 and is thus not averse to letting voters have their say when it does not directly contradict its interests. Therefore, if a candidate politically aligned with the IRGC can actually generate enough voter enthusiasm to win the election, the IRGC will likely let them assume the presidency. We believe that the strongest candidate for such a scenario is Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf.”

While we contended that Saeed Jalili was the candidate of the Neo-Principalist hardline establishment, we fully acknowledged his lack of popular support and weak campaign. We were also skeptical of the chances of Tehran Mayor Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf to have broad popular appeal  given his schizophrenic electioneering strategy and the fact that he would have to appeal to both hardliners and moderates to be successful. However, where we fell seriously short was underestimating the Centrists and Reformists: “Although they [Reformists] may be allowed to participate in the 2013 election and may cooperate with the Centrists, it is highly unlikely that they will be allowed to win.” We saw a Centrist and/or Reformist victory as being highly improbable. While in retrospect this was proven incorrect, our case had a very strong basis in political trends.

Leading up to the 2013 election the pressure on Centrists and Reformists only appeared to intensify. No less than Ali Saeedi, the supreme leader’s representative to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), harshly attacked both Centrists and Reformists and labeled Hashemi-Rafsanjani, a founding father of the Islamic Republic, as being outside of the regime. Saeedi also appeared to indicate that the elections would be tightly controlled: “…our essential duty is the logical and rational engineering of the election.” Such signals from the Neo-Principalist hardline establishment were the rule and not the exception. Our suspicions about the regime’s desire to strictly control these elections was confirmed when Hashemi-Rafsanjani, seemingly against all odds, was disqualified. Therefore until the final days of the campaign all indicators suggested to us that the election would at best be semi-competitive.

Yet what appeared to be a clear trend toward the exclusion of Centrists and Reformists was stopped in its tracks. The election seems to have been competitive and the regime appear to have counted the Iranian electorate’s votes. Why? What shifted the balance of power to such an extent that Centrists and Reformists, who just three weeks before were pushed to the very margins of the regime, were able to force the regime to count their votes? One possibility we find very convincing may be that the rift between Neo- and Traditional Principalists, which has grown much wider since the 2009 election, prevented Principalists from acting in a unified manner to control the election’s outcome as they did in 2009. We should not underestimate the significance of this. Let us remember that after June 2009 even some Centrists, including the now moderate Rouhani, sided with Principalists and condemned the Green Movement during the post-election demonstrations. During the final major Green Movement protest (known as the 25th of Bahman demonstration) to support the Arab Spring, for which Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi were placed under house arrest, Rouhani declared:

“The beguiled 25th of Bahman demonstration is completely condemned and the judiciary must take action against this anti-revolutionary movement based on its essential duties…The sworn and wounded enemies of the Islamic Revolution, which is now at its height due to the leadership of Imam Khomeini and the supreme leader, seek every opportunity to take revenge of the revolution and want to create fissures in the unity of the people and the regime’s elites and authorities, and damage the greatness and magnificence of the Islamic regime. Awakening, resistance, dignity, and listening to the command of the leader of the nation of Iran will be a harsh response to the conspiracies of the Arrogance.”

The idea of a rift between Neo- and Traditional Principalists is also backed up by the conflict between outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Traditional Principalist-led parliament as well as the very public way in which Traditional Principalist candidate Ali-Akbar Velayati attacked Neo-Principalist candidates Jalili and vice versa. In this light Ahmad Khatami and Hossein Shariatmadari’s entreaties for Principalist unity make much greater sense. Both Khatami and Shariatmadari are seen as expressing the views of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to some extent. Just two days before the election Khatami declared that: “If Principalists do not reach unity in the current situation they should be certain that they will have no way to explain [their failure] before God.” On the same day, Shariatmadari rebuked Principalists, asking “Why and based on what rational, religious, and revolutionary justification” they did not put forth a single candidate. Let us not forget that Rouhani’s victory in the first round with 50.7 percent, while significant, was very narrow. Had Principalists united around a single candidate the dynamics of the election could have been different and, at the very least, there may have been a second round. At another level, if Principalists were united it may have been easier to commit electoral fraud. While we must wait for Khamenei to speak his mind on the matter, Khatami and Shariatmadari’s rebukes signal that both Neo- and Traditional Principalists, who consider obedience to the supreme leader one of their highest principles, explicitly went against what appears to have been Khamenei’s desire for Principalist unity in the election.

While this division may help explain why Principalists were unable to control the election’s outcome, we are left to wonder about the source of this great disunity in the context of the election. There are a number of possible causes of this disunity, but foreign policy may be the most significant because of the  pressure of economic sanctions and constant threat of war hanging over the country. Foreign policy considerations may have forced Traditional Principalists to reassess their calculations on their coalition with Neo-Principalists. The latter gave every signal that they were intent on continuing Iran’s hardline foreign policy and seemed likely to expose the country to further sanctions and perhaps even military attack. Although the disunity prevented Principalists from controlling the election’s outcome and ultimately prevented Traditional Principalists from winning the presidency, they are likely more  content living with president-elect Rouhani’s moderate foreign policy.

In fact there have been a number of recent indications, which we will cover in the coming weeks, that point to major things potentially taking on both of Iran’s major international crises at the present: P5+1-Iran nuclear negotiations and the Syrian Civil War. Whatever is happening, there may have been a stronger foreign policy logic behind the election outcome. Without being clear on what actually happened, it may be too soon to begin speculating about the implications of a Rouhani administration.