Reflecting on Iran’s presidential elections

Developing Just Leadership

Zafar Bangash

Sha'ban 22, 1434 2013-07-01

News & Analysis

by Zafar Bangash (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 42, No. 5, Sha'ban, 1434)

With his convincing first round victory in Iran’s 11th presidential election, Dr Hassan Rohani has exposed the west’s negative propaganda that had dismissed the elections as “irrelevant”. The Iranian people have also shown their support for the Islamic system by participating in record numbers.

The people of Iran have demonstrated yet again that they cannot be pigeon-holed into predicable behaviour of the West’s distorted conception. They have confounded even the most seasoned observers about the country’s political scene. The June 14 presidential polls provided further evidence of this truism. The BBC had derisively dismissed the election as “selection” even before the people had cast any ballots and the Washington Post went a step further by boldly proclaiming that Rohani “will not be allowed to win.” One wonders how these Western media outlets can make such pronouncements without feeling the slightest hint of embarrassment.

In a field of eight candidates of which two, Dr. Gholamali Haddad Adel and Dr. Mohammad Reza Aref, dropped out five days before polling, Dr. Hassan Rohani emerged the clear winner when all the votes were counted. The voting period was extended by five hours so as to enable people that had waited in line for hours to cast their ballots. Most media outlets even in Iran had failed to read the political scene accurately. The conventional wisdom was that no clear winner would emerge in the first round — a day before the election PressTV had reported this based on opinion polls. The speculation was that Dr. Saeed Jalili and Dr. Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf would perhaps come out on top and go into the run-off election on June 21.

So how did Dr. Rohani pull off a first round victory? Several factors were at work. First, of the six candidates, he was the only one who was able to articulate a different vision and agenda. The others presented fairly similar views. Thus the choice for the electorate was choosing between Dr. Rohani and one of the other five. When Dr. Aref withdrew from the race, he opened the way for Dr. Rohani to garner the votes that would otherwise have been split and necessitated a second round. The vote on the other side was obviously split. Looking at the vote, Dr. Rohani obtained 50.68%, barely above the requirement for election and slightly more than the total for the other five candidates put together.

All candidates were given equal time on television to present their views and policies. There were three televised debates between candidates. Dr. Rohani had started off with somewhat of a handicap relating to his compromising approach vis-à-vis the West over Iran’s nuclear file when he was the chief negotiator from 2003–2005. As Dr. Mohammad Marandi, Dean of Faculty of World Studies at University of Tehran and one of the best-informed commentators, wrote in a joint piece with Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, “Going into the campaign, Rohani’s biggest weakness was foreign policy; in 2003–05, during Rohani’s tenure as chief nuclear negotiator, Tehran agreed to suspend uranium enrichment for nearly two years, but got nothing from Western powers in return. In fact, criticism of Rohani’s negotiating approach was an important factor in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s first election to the presidency in 2005.” But he was able to address this issue in a manner that convinced many voters about his approach. “During this year’s campaign, Rohani effectively addressed this potential vulnerability, arguing that his approach allowed Iran to avoid sanctions while laying the ground for the subsequent development in its nuclear infrastructure,” wrote Dr. Marandi. “Moreover, Rohani’s campaign video included praise from armed forces chief of staff General Seyed Hassan Firouzabadi, which bolstered Rohani’s perceived credibility on security issues,” explained Dr. Marandi.

Analysis of the voting pattern also revealed an interesting feature of Dr. Rohani’s support base. Contrary to the widely projected view in the Western media that he won as a result of the reformists’ support, his principal support came from the rural areas where people are much more conservative. The fact that Dr. Rohani was the only clergy in the race, as Dr. Marandi noted, also helped his chances with the rural more conservative population that is deeply attached to the Islamic system of government.

There was also another factor at play. The Iranian public and indeed many leading political figures had become disenchanted with outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s abrasive style in domestic politics. He had become a polarizing figure in the last couple of years, something that many Iranians did not like despite twice electing him president. His changed policies and personal conduct resulted in many people turning away from confrontational politics. They also blamed him for economic mismanagement, especially in the last two years. While Ahmadinejad is talented, his conduct actually helped those who wanted a softer, more nuanced approach in politics. Dr. Rohani is seen as a consensus builder and following his victory, he announced he would work with all factions in Iran. It is interesting to note that once it became clear Dr. Rohani had won, the other candidates immediately sent congratulatory messages to him.

In his first televised address after victory, Dr. Rohani said, “This is a victory of intelligence, of moderation, of progress… over extremism.” He went on, “A new opportunity has been created by this great epic, and the nations who tout democracy and open dialogue should speak to the Iranian people with respect and recognise the rights of the Islamic Republic.” Should they conduct themselves in a proper manner, they will “hear an appropriate response [from Iran],” he added. A little later, he also stressed that Iran’s stopping enrichment was a non-starter. “Those days are behind us,” he told a gathering at the Strategic Research Centre of the Expediency Council which he heads.

Dr. Rohani’s election has left the US establishment shell-shocked. The Americans did not expect him to win and had already dismissed the election as “irrelevant,” an attitude that evoked a strong rebuke from the Rahbar, Imam Seyyed Ali Khamenei who told the Americans, “We do not give a damn about what you think.” In his first public comments about the election, US President Barak Obama again spoke from both sides of his mouth as has become his wont. While saying he wants “a more serious, substantive” engagement with Tehran, he went on to repeat the ludicrous assertion that Iran’s leaders would have to show a genuine willingness to compromise (emphasis added) before Washington would agree to any easing of the illegal sanctions against the Islamic Republic. Why should Iran’s leader compromise?

“Those [sanctions] will not be lifted in the absence of significant steps in showing the international community that Iran is not pursuing a nuclear weapon,” Obama said in an interview broadcast on PBS’s “Charlie Rose” show on June 17. Iran has repeatedly stressed that it is not after nuclear weapons and despite stringent inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that has been reduced to little more than an American branch office, no evidence has been found of Iran’s divergence of any nuclear material for military purposes. Yet under Zionist pressure, American officials continue to repeat their nonsensical allegations.

Inside Iran, some interesting developments have been underway. We could characterize the two preceding presidencies as watershed periods in Iran’s history. The first, of Mohammad Khatami from 1997–2005 was characterized by deep compromises with the West without getting anything in return. In fact, Khatami’s presidency was viewed as a move toward Iranian nationalism with a thin Islamic veneer. It yielded nothing tangible for Iran. Ahmedinejad’s presidency from 2005–2013 swung the pendulum to the other extreme. While he took a confrontational approach in foreign policy that had the support of most Iranians as well as Muslims worldwide, he also adopted the same style in domestic politics. This caused considerable anguish inside Iran where most informed observers saw him as a divisive figure. Dr. Rohani’s presidency reflects the shifting of both extremes to the middle.

“Key to Rohani’s success was his ability to forge coalitions, especially with reformists. Rohani is not himself a reformist. He belongs to the Society of Combatant Clergy, the conservative antipode to the Assembly of Combatant Clerics founded by Mohammad Khatami — who became Iran’s first reformist president in 1997 — and other reform-minded clerics,” wrote Dr. Marandi in his post-election commentary. Rohani’s ability to get along with all sides and factions in Iran represents his consensus-based approach and one that will serve him well. One could say that he believes in soft power.

Leading figures inside Iran were already promoting the concept of soft power long before the presidential election, which incidentally also coincided with local elections, were held. The concept of soft power was discussed and highlighted in political and academic discourse in Iran prior to the election. This writer has personal knowledge of it since his book, Power Manifestations of the Sirah: Letters and Treaties of the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) was translated and published by the Islamic World Peace Forum in Tehran. In fact, a conference was organized in Tehran on May 8 on the theme of the book, which was translated into Farsi by the title of Diplomacy wa Sulh-e Adilana dar Sirah-e Payambar-e Azam – r (Diplomacy and Just Peace in the Sirah of the Noble Messenger – r). Academics, researchers and diplomats from Iran as well as around the world were invited to present papers on this topic. Organized by the Islamic World Peace Forum, the conference was co-sponsored by a number of universities, research bodies as well as Iranian ministries including the Ministry of Islamic Guidance, Foreign Ministry as well as the Cultural Council of the Islamic Revolution. The conference also announced annual awards to writers of original material on the Sirah of the noble Messenger (pbuh). Thus the trend in Islamic Iran was evident long before the presidential election took place.

Dr. Rohani brings to his presidency a wealth of experience. He has been described by some commentators — Dr. M.K. Bhadramkumar, for instance — as the most seasoned foreign policy expert in Iran. He has studied in Qom as well as holds a PhD in law from Glasgow’s Caledonia University in Scotland. He was elected to the Majlis (Parliament) for five consecutive terms from 1980 to 2000 where he served as Deputy Speaker as well as head of the Defence and Foreign Policy committees.

During the 1980–1988 Iraqi imposed war, Dr. Rohani served as member of the High Defence Council, commander of the Iran Air Defence and deputy commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces. He is the representative of the Rahbar in the Supreme National Security Council, as well as member of the Expediency Council and the Assembly of Experts. He also speaks several languages that include in addition to Farsi, Arabic, English, German, French and Russian.

Thus he assumes the office of president at a difficult time in Iran’s history but he comes with a wealth of experience. As a consensus builder this will help him chart Islamic Iran’s policies with a steady hand.

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