High expectations of the moderate cleric’s victory in Iran

By Shereen Dbouk (under the supervision of Sandro D’Angelo)

Published by the Directorate-General for External Policies (Policy Department) of the European Parliament.

In a surprise landslide victory, moderate cleric candidate Hassan Rowhani won a first-round victory, securing 50.7 % of all the votes cast in Iran’s presidential election. Rowhani, the lone centrist candidate, backed by the reformist front, capitalised on divisions within the conservative camp to win the election. He campaigned on the slogan ‘hope and prudence’, using the colour purple in a bid to recapture the 2009 Green Movement narrative and appeal to its base.

Rowhani’s triumph is a striking rebuttal of the hard-line conservative policy pursued by twice-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. His message appealed to reform-minded voters as well as to conservatives who believe that the new president will ease tensions with the West, ensure greater freedom of expression and launch a much-needed economic recovery plan. Yet it remains to be seen whether Rowhani will be able to offset the authority of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who holds ultimate power on foreign policy issues.

The new president, Hassan Rowhani 

Hassan Rowhani, former chief of Iran’s National Security Council and ex-chief nuclear negotiator, became the focus of the reformist struggle after former president Hashemi Rafsanjani was prohibited from running. He campaigned on a platform of normalisation with the West and greater freedom of expression, and broadly rejected Ahmadinejad’s record of repression. His holistic understanding of Iran’s main challenges – the need for domestic liberalisation and détente –, combined with a determination to maintain Iran’s status on the international scene, helped him gather a broad electoral base, including conservatives. Although not a reformist candidate, the lack of other suitable candidates made him the obvious choice for many Iranians after eight years of tough conservative rule.

Bolstered by endorsements from reformist ex-presidents Mohammad Khatami and Rafsanjani, Rowhani’s victory is mainly due to an unprecedented upsurge of mobilisation a mere three days before the vote, motivating reformist-minded Iranians who had planned to boycott the elections to vote after all.

As the consensus candidate bridging the gap between conservatives and reformists, he is also the ideal candidate for the Supreme Leader. A product of the Iranian establishment, Rowhani’s loyalty to Khamenei is unquestionable. The only cleric in the race, he was a member of the Iranian Parliament for two decades, Iran’s chief negotiator from 2003 to 2005, and until recently represented the Supreme Leader in the powerful National Security Council, Iran’s top security body.

His election may herald positive change in domestic policy, with a return to a more pragmatic agenda. His reputation for bridging differences could have a significant impact on domestic issues and soften Iran’s official stance on international issues.1 It is worth noting that Rowhani may have the greatest margin of manoeuvre in economic decisions, as this area falls within the remit of his presidential prerogatives. His room for manoeuvre is nevertheless limited, since economic improvement is intrinsically linked to an easing of international sanctions.

In terms of international policy, the president-elect will not hold essential powers, this distinction belonging to the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic. It remains to be seen whether the new president is able, and willing, to carve out more significant powers with regard to Iran’s nuclear policy.2

The 2013 presidential election 

According to the Iranian Interior Ministry, voter turnout rose to 72 %. Out of the 51 million registered voters, 37.5 million came to the ballot box, with young voters accounting for one third, a lower proportion than in the 2009 elections. This despite the fact that the Iranian establishment had noted its capacity to destabilise the electoral process in 2009 and had implemented a lockdown across Iran ahead of this year’s election. 57 % of voters were adults, whose concerns are mostly of an economic nature. Rowhani’s candidacy gained the votes of most financially distressed families, as well as those of reformist-minded young people.

Social class was the main focus of the candidates’ attention in this year’s campaign. Rising inequalities have widened the gap between rich and poor voters, justifying the economically driven discourse of the majority of candidates.

Iran has a particularly large and rapidly mobilisable swing vote, the hez-e­ baad (Party of the Wind). Their decision to back Hassan Rowhani explains his impressive result. The new president garnered 18.6 million votes, thus winning the race by an absolute majority.

Haunted by the 2009 chaos, this election’s voter turnout was instrumental in consolidating the foundations of the Islamic Republic. Religious networks, along with the Basiji3, invested massively in traditionally conservative rural areas in a bid to secure a threshold of 50 % voter turnout. Urban areas, particularly Tehran, which is home to middle-class intellectual élites close to the reformist movement, played an essential part in the elections. Their participation is key to lending a much-needed legitimacy to the electoral process.

Supreme Leader Khamenei’s grip on the election 

The Iranian presidential election took place at a time of unprecedented economic isolation. Iran’s refusal to settle on the nuclear issue, coupled with disastrous management of the economy and endemic corruption, has left the country in economic hardship, with record levels of inflation and unemployment.4

Echoing the political, social and economic frustrations that led to the 2009 uprisings following Ahmadinejad’s disputed victory, Iranians have shown growing disgruntlement with the former president’s legacy. To pre-empt a resurgence of the Green Movement, Iran’s clerical establishment therefore adopted a twofold strategy to undercut the opposition and isolate Ahmadinejad’s allies, while at the same time ensuring a semblance of legitimacy for this year’s election5.

Ayatollah Khamenei played an instrumental role in the election, exercising great influence over the Guardian Council’s vetting process.

Out of 686 candidates registered for the presidential election, Iran’s political spectrum shrank to a handful of conservatives, also known as Principlists, and one centrist following the Guardian Council’s implacable vetting procedure. The Guardian Council6 approved eight candidates, and two reformist candidates – Mohammad Reza Aref7 and former speaker of the Iranian parliament Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel – dropped out of the race.

Most notably, the Guardian Council disqualified Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president of Iran and close ally of former reformist president Mohammad Khatami. His disqualification was a major blow to the reformist movement. Following the same strategy of undercutting disruptive elements, the Guardian Council barred Ahmadinejad’s heir, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, from running. The disqualification of these two candidates was a strong indicator of the clerical establishment’s intent to micromanage the election, with the objective of restoring the electoral process’s legitimacy, which had been tarnished by the 2009 protests.

Ali Akbar Velayati, Iran’s former foreign minister and adviser to Ayatollah Khamenei, was believed to be one of the two candidates favoured by the Supreme Leader. Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, mayor of Tehran and former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, focused his campaign on economic recovery. Although sitting at the edge of the Principlist camp and running on an independent ticket, he is considered a Khamenei loyalist. Having come in fourth in the 2005 election, he was considered a strong contestant in the race. Six million Iranians chose him as their candidate, placing him second in the race.

Saaed Jalili, head of Iran’s National Security Council and chief nuclear negotiator, emerged as Khamenei’s political heir. His lack of ties to Iranian élites, combined with his strong belief in the velayat-e faqih principle (whereby political leadership belongs to the best-qualified jurist, namely the Supreme Leader), made him the ideal candidate to convey Khamenei’s views in domestic and international affairs. The most notable candidate from the Principlist camp, he consistently advocated economic and political resistance to international interference in Iranian affairs. 3.17 million Iranians voted for him.

Elections unfair, unfree and unpredictable

Although unexpected, Rowhani’s election should not come as a complete surprise. History indicates that Iranian elections have often been unpredictable, as evidenced by the victories of presidents Khatami and Ahmadinejad. The unpredictability of Iranian elections is a testament to the country’s politicised society, as well as to the system’s ability to rig elections.

The Iranian electoral system has been subject to criticism because it does not provide electoral lists. Voters choose their polling stations freely, with rural areas usually relying on large vans that serve as moving voting stations, travelling from one rural area to another. The opacity of the voting process regularly results in allegations of election rigging and fraud.

This was further exacerbated by Khamenei’s attempt to engineer this year’s election, as exemplified by amendments to the election law enacted in early 2013 with a view to diminishing the current government’s authority in the final counting of votes at national level. The crucial task of final vote counting, which usually falls within the jurisdiction of the ministry of the Interior, was transferred to a newly appointed eleven-member council dominated by Khamenei’s allies.

Khamenei, who once called Ahmadinejad’s 2009 victory a ‘divine blessing’, was embroiled in a power struggle with the former president, whose unpopular politics triggered the 2009 civil unrest and the subsequent destabilisation of Iran’s political foundations.

The change in the electoral law secured the electoral process by ensuring that Ahmadinejad would have no chance to disrupt it.

This election’s main objective was to restore the legitimacy of the political system after allegations of a rigged election in 2009 and the subsequent government crackdown on protest. After taking stock of events, Khamenei opted to control the election from the outset.

By allowing only a restricted number of vetted candidates to run, he created a narrow space in which a high turnout would create the illusion that free and fair elections had been held, reinforcing trust and confidence in Iran’s political system.

While the massive participation by Iranians and the choice of president are a reflection of a ‘healthier’ electoral process than that of 2009, they also represent a victory for the Supreme Leader, who had earlier called on Iranians, even those not supporting the Islamic system, to come out and vote. Khamenei successfully used the elections to legitimise the foundations of the Islamic Republic and redeem the situation after the massive protests of 2009.

Participation by the ‘opposition’ not only resulted in a vote for change, but also in a vote of confidence in a more inclusive Islamic Republic, whose executive branch is now led by a popular cleric and esteemed member of the Iranian establishment.

The return of moderates to the fore should be viewed with caution. Rowhani came from a pool of candidates handpicked by the Supreme Leader.

International and domestic policy 

The electoral outcome will have little impact on Iran’s regional policies, particularly as regards Syria, or on the nuclear issue. The president acts as the public face of Iran on the international scene, while the actual power rests with the office of the Supreme Leader. A new president will change little about this dynamic. Iran’s foreign policies in the Middle East and its nuclear programme are prerogatives of the Revolutionary Guard, which reports to the Supreme Leader, a staunch supporter of Iran’s nuclear activities.

Syria is of paramount importance to Iran. The Iran-led ‘axis of resistance’, also known as the Shi’ite Crescent, currently rests on Iraq, Syria and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Following the Arab Spring and the subsequent political reshuffles in a number of countries, which saw Saudi- and/or Qatari-backed Sunni powers emerge, Iran depends more than ever on Syria to maintain its influence in the Middle East.

The election will, on the other hand, determine the fate of Iranians over the next four years, as the President spearheads the economic agenda and determines the country’s domestic atmosphere. Although there is an intrinsic link to international pressures, Iranian voters were mainly concerned with domestic issues relating to socio-economic concerns. Iran’s business community suffered greatly from international sanctions, corruption and economic mismanagement during Ahmadinejad’s second term.

President Ahmadinejad’s populist programme, consisting in cash distribution to compensate for the suspension of government subsidies to energy and food staples, resulted in massive inflation and hence to disgruntlement towards the former president on the part of the Iranian middle class. Candidates have consistently acknowledged this concern, albeit using different rhetoric. Two candidates stood out on this issue: Mohsen Rezai advocated empowerment of the provinces through the establishment of a system of ‘economic federalism’, while Tehran mayor Ghalibaf supported greater integration into the global economy.

For Iranians, the election represented an opportunity to highlight their demand for a depoliticisation of economic decisions.

International reactions 

Following previous rounds of failed negotiations in the past year, the international community remains cautious about Iran’s position on the nuclear issue and regional affairs. High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the Commission (HR/VP) Catherine Ashton congratulated the newly elected Iranian president: ‘I wish Mr Rowhani well in forming a new government and in taking up his new responsibilities. I remain firmly committed to working with the new Iranian leadership towards a swift diplomatic solution of the nuclear issue.’

The United States remains ‘ready to engage the Iranian government directly in order to reach a diplomatic solution that will fully address the international community’s concern over its nuclear programme’, while criticising the limitation of freedom of expression and assembly during election day. The UN Secretary-General congratulated Iran and called on the new
president to take ‘a constructive role in regional and international affairs’. Israel, in the person of its prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu, called for continued international pressure on Iran to curb its nuclear efforts.8

Will Rowhani be the President of dialogue ?

HR/VP Catherine Ashton is leading the international community’s negotiations with Iran on the nuclear issue and has contributed to making multilateralism ‘effective’. She has succeeded in maintaining a unified EU policy on Iran, which has in turn made it possible to sustain a consolidated front of the six powers (P5+1).

International talks on Iran’s nuclear programme recently resumed when chief nuclear negotiator Jalili and EU/VP Ashton, representing the P5+1, met in Kazakhstan in February 2013. Progress on the diplomatic track proved modest, as both sides took steps to consolidate their opposing positions. The EU deepened its sanctions in its energy and finance sectors, while the United States enacted new guidelines to restrict Iran’s ability to control its income from oil exports. Meanwhile, Iran has hardened its stance and announced progress on its nuclear programme. Unless Iran decides to ‘stop, ship and shut’, the window for substantive diplomacy seems to be narrowing.

Rowhani’s election should be viewed as a catalyst for dialogue between Iran and the international community. The election of the new president could be an opportunity for the Supreme Leader to amend the discourse. However, nothing radical should be expected. The main focus will be on diplomatic negotiations to obtain full access for the international community with regard to Iran’s nuclear progress.



1 In his first news conference since being elected, Hassan Rowhani stated that Iran had no plans to suspend uranium enrichment, stood by Iran’s policy on Syria and outlined several preconditions for any kind of improvement in relations with the United States.(www.washingtonpost.com)

2 The Revolutionary Guard and other like-minded hard-line conservatives control an array of essential decision-making bodies in Iran, making it more difficult for the president to implement meaningful reforms

3 The Basiji is a paramilitary volunteer militia established in 1979 by order of the Islamic Revolution’s leader, Ayatollah Khomeini.

4 Financial restrictions have reduced the country’s oil revenues and undercut the value of its national currency by 80 %.

5 The presidential election was held on the same day as the local ‘city and village’ elections, a key factor in boosting popular participation. Opposition leaders Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi have been under house arrest since 2010, which has considerably weakened the cohesiveness of the Green Movement.

6 The Guardian Council, composed of six clerics nominated by the Supreme Leader and six members elected by the parliament, vets the candidates, thus partially determining the course of the electoral process.

7 President Khatami publicly endorsed Hassan Rowhani, which explains Aref’s decision to drop out. 

8 Reuters