Iran’s presidential elections invariably offer a limited choice of candidates, all hand-picked by the Guardian Council, a body selected by the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. It is then up to Khamenei whether their vote should be counted.
In 2009, Khamenei disregarded popular will and selected President Ahmadinejad instead. In 2013, he apparently took the opposite course of action. But, by having limited the competition to eight candidates, he ensured that even his least favoured, Hassan Rouhani, would still be a regime loyalist. Here then, in five parts, is what to make of these elections.
First, Mr Rouhani, Khamenei’s appointee to the Supreme Security Council and the Expediency Discernment Council is not a reformist, does not like to be called a reformist and tries to keep his distance from reformists. Mr Rouhani is not part of the opposition movement; he is not an outsider nor an opponent of either the Supreme Leader or the Revolutionary Guards; he is not a liberal or a democrat. He is not even a moderate. Mr Rouhani has been, is and will be part of the establishment; he is a middle-of-the-road conservative.
Secondly, there are early signs which spell out why we should not get too hopeful. In his first press conference, Mr Rouhani asserted that he would not stop nuclear enrichment, and that Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, should stay in power until 2014 until the Syrian people can choose him or someone else — essentially, Assad’s position. Mr Rouhani also said that sanctions were unjust and cruel. He even claimed that the only country to benefits from sanctions is Israel. In short: Mr Rouhani will not deviate an iota from the Islamic republic’s orthodoxy.
Mr Rouhani’s presidency could become a great opportunity for Iran to continue its military nuclear programme while showing a soft face to the West, dividing them and weakening their will to pressure the country .
Thirdly, it was the sanctions that won it. In one debate, Ali Akbar Velayati, former foreign minister and special foreign policy adviser to the Supreme Leader, criticised the regime’s handling of the nuclear negotiations that led to the embargoes, recognising that sanctions are a great danger to the existence of the Islamic republic.
Mr Rouhani has promised to find a way to relieve the sanctions, and he was responsible for Iran’s temporary retreat in nuclear negotiations when he was the top negotiator. Western policy makers should therefore resist the temptation of giving him the gift of relief from sanctions until he stops Iran’s military nuclear programme.
Fourthly, the vote was a big ‘no’ to the current nuclear policy. Hardliners portrayed Mr Rouhani as someone ready to stop Iran’s nuclear project. As such, his victory was a rejection of the nuclear programme and the discourse of resistance against the West.
Finally, the election was a rejection of Khamenei. Had the Supreme Leader had his way, the current nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, would have won. That he came a distant third shows how people see Khamenei himself.
In time, the Supreme Leader may come to see the advantages of having a softer face in the presidential palace — it may allow him to put Iran’s nuclear ambitions on a more solid footing.