A month ago, observers were stunned as a dark-horse reform candidate, Hassan Rouhani, was declared the winner of the presidential election in Iran.
I haven’t commented yet because this was a surprise to me, and I wanted to try and understand it. Thanks to an excellent article by Kevan Harris, I think I now better comprehend what happened.
It really starts five years ago, in 2009. That year an electoral challenge by more globally-oriented reformers was going well. Reformers united behind the candidacy of Hussein Mousavi, who looked poised to force a run-off with incumbent president Ahmadinejad.
Yet vote-counting suddenly showed a substantial first-round victory by the incumbent, with suspiciously huge vote totals coming in for Ahmadinejad from many regions, and bizarrely small totals coming from Mousavi’s own home province and major cities.
The populace of Tehran and other cities protested the announced results, claiming they were a blatant manipulation and defiance of their vote. But the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei cast his support for Ahmadinejad, and the Revolutionary Guards and Basij militia did the rest, suppressing the popular revolts through night-time arrests, torture, and house-to-house searches and control of the streets. The Revolutionary Guard leaders were rewarded with ministries and an even larger economic role, and the authority of the conservative, anti-Western clerics around the Khamenei was solidified.
The so-called “Green Revolution” thus was aborted. In the ensuing years, the confrontational policies of Iran’s leadership, especially in regard to pursuing nuclear capabilities, led the world to impose ever-tougher sanctions, which have started to bite hard on the Iranian economy. The populist policies of Ahmadinejad lost their appeal, as the money behind them started to dry up, and Ahmadinejad himself became a pariah on most of the world’s stages for his crude anti-Zionism and anti-Western diatribes. Still, the grip on power of the Supreme Leader and Revolutionary Guards seemed secure.
So secure, in fact, that the most probable act of voters who wanted some kind of change was to simply boycott the election, rather than vote and have their vote again nullified or ignored by a regime determined to hold on to power.
These feelings were likely confirmed when the careful vetting of potential presidential candidates by Khamenei left only eight candidates standing, including a disqualification of the more cosmopolitan business and political fixer, former President Hashemi Rafsanjani. The eight included several hard-line anti-Western candidates, and a few more pragmatic business-oriented types, so that it seemed likely that the more pragmatic, reformist candidates would split any reformist vote, and a hard-liner favored by the conservative leadership would win the election. Or so it appeared to even the most astute observers two weeks before the election.
Then lightening seemed to strike. In a televised debate, candidates not only criticized each other but several even criticized the anti-Western and confrontational policies that had led to such hurtful sanctions being enforced against Iranian businesses. People were shocked — was the regime admitting that the Ahmadinejad regime had stumbled? Were they opening the door to change? All of a sudden it seemed that perhaps there was room for a shift in policy after all.
Then a rapid mobilizing and strategizing campaign by reformist leaders, including former Presidents Rafsanjani and Khatemi, started to build momentum. They persuaded one reform candidate to withdraw from the race, and consolidated all their supporters behind Rouhani’s candidacy. Word was spread that if people wanted a change, they should vote for Rouhani, and that others would vote with them. In just over a week, Rouhani went from dubious dark-horse to the leading candidate. After the election, when 72% of eligible voters had turned out and the votes were counted, Rouhani’s winning margin was huge, and too vast to fiddle — he had gotten more than three times as many votes as the next candidate, second place going to Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf with just over 16% of the vote, compared to over 50% for Rouhani.
A victory that large for the candidate backed by two former Presidents who the Supreme Leader had forbidden to run has upset all calculations about Iran. It is just as much of a surprise — and just as much a popular mass action to claim reclaim dignity and democracy from an authoritarian regime — as the overthrow of President Mubarak in Egypt.
Of course, the regime has not changed; it has just elected a new President who was, after all, personally approved as a candidate by the Supreme Leader and who has only limited authority. So it remains to be seen how much will actually change, and whether any adjustment will be sharp or gradual.
Still, we have seen another big surprise in the Middle East. The land of authoritarian rule has again been shaken by a population who refused to do as expected, and has instead expressed a demand to be heard and to have their votes count. That is a good thing. But whether more good things follow, or we shall see further conflict and backlash in Iran, cannot be foreseen at this time. One has to hope that Western leaders react strongly and wisely to this opportunity, and offer Iran reasonable compromises to help it resume a place in the global community. And one then has to hope Iran can bend and accept reasonable compromises, something that seemed impossible the last ten years.