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 “Mousavi, where are you? We qualified for the world cup!”—Crowds celebrating the Iranian football team’s qualification for the 2014 World Cup on 18 June 2013

Hope, it appears, is once more hoisting its sails in Iran.

What else could the endless scenes of jubilation in the streets of Iran in June have signified?

“You’d think the Shah just left,” said one person who was in utter awe after witnessing the joyous crowds in the north-western city of Tabriz noted.

“It was more imposed on us than the eight-year war with Iraq,” argued my cousin. “I congratulate you for the end of this eight-year long holy defence.”

Rouhani supporters waving balloons during the 2013 Presidential Election rallies [Image via ISNA]
Rouhani supporters waving balloons during the 2013 Presidential Election rallies [Image via ISNA]

Of course, Iran had not just experienced a revolution similar to that of 1979, during which the Shah (King Mohammad Reza Pahlavi) was forced into exile. Nor had it just emerged victorious after a bloody war with an invading army supported by all the major powers.

But for the many who had flocked the streets on 15 June 2013, the results of Iran’s 11th presidential election was no less significant. After eight years, Iran had a new President: a “moderate” cleric by the name of Hassan Rouhani.

One cannot fully appreciate the significance of his election without looking back at the eight years that preceded him.

On 4 August, the Ahmadinejad presidency—a bitter rollercoaster ride with an exquisite appetite for deception, scandals, populism, tokenism, corruption, unparalleled yet overt cronyism, mismanagement, etc.—finally came to an end as the new president was sworn in.

If tears are shed at the prospect of his departure, they are surely not the tears of the masses in Tehran. They are more likely being shed in Tel-Aviv and the war hawks in Washington.

“Today Israel bids a sad farewell to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, that unexpected asset to Israeli public diplomacy, who served it so well during his eight years as president of Iran” rightfully noted Amos Harel, writing for Israel’s Haaretz newspaper.[1]

“Ahmadinejad is our greatest gift,” former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy had once declared.[2]

As Israeli author and activist Uri Avnery put it, “were he [Ahmadinejad] an agent of the Mossad, he would not behave any differently. And also: If he did not exist, the Mossad would have had to invent him.”

Although Israel comes to term with it the irrelevance of its favourite scarecrow for the past eight years, in Iran, unsurprisingly, the mood is far less sombre.

On the foreign policy front, it appeared that at times, Ahmadinejad’s only goal—if there even was a goal—was to isolate Iran on the international stage, either through his administration’s poor handling of the nuclear negotiations or the president’s bellicose rhetoric on Israel and the holocaust. Neither of these two “strategies” did anything to alleviate the pain and suffering faced by Iranians or Palestinians. While attempting to project the image of a powerful statesmen at an anti-racism meeting in Geneva, he managed to single-handedly divert the world’s attention away from Israel’s bloodbath—or “Operation Cast Lead”—in Gaza and instead gave European delegates an excuse to walk out during his speech.

One of the sad ironies of the past eight years, perhaps, was just how close Ahmadinejad, a cartoonish embodiment of opportunism, succeeded in setting Iran on a collision course with the West, especially over its nuclear programme. I shudder to think what would have happened had the Bush and Ahmadinejad mandates overlapped a little longer.

At times, he would be best likened to a curious stripling experimenting with the buttons of the sophisticated machinery of the state, while he pertinaciously defended the outcome of his uncalculated actions.

Iranians citizens glared as the value of their country’s passport plunged lower and lower every year.

When he wasn’t busy making incendiary remarks that generously fuelled the propaganda machine of Iran’s warmongering foes, Ahmadinejad would be boasting before cameras about a Spanish-speaking toddler he had come across in New York who had nothing but absolute respect for “uncle Mahmoud” and his government’s foreign policy, which had limited Iran’s friends to a few countries such as Zimbabwe, Venezuela, Syria and Lebanon and had alienated almost every neighbouring country. Even Cuban president Fidel Castro, seen as a friend of Iran, grew tired of Ahmadinejad’s tirades, the point of which was lost on everyone but Ahmadinejad, or so it seemed.[3]

In the early years of his presidency, some—particularly many foreign observers hoping to make sense of the complexities of Iranian politics—struggled to comprehend whether his actions amounted to ironic comedy or just an earnest exercise of misinformation gone hand in hand with genuine religious zeal.

Churchill once famously said that “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” Ahmadinejad, on the other hand, had very little concern for trivialities such as the truth, even long after it had managed to get its pants on.

As he turned Iran into the laughing stock of the world, he would somehow manage to muster up the audacity to describe how former president Mohammad Khatami had brought shame to the nation during his 1999 encounter with Jacque Chirac because the French president had purposefully refused to descend the steps of the Élysée Palace. (It didn’t seem to matter much that readily available video footage of the said meeting proved he had flat-out lied.)

That’s not to say that Ahmadinejad always lied about everything. He was, on rare occasions, kind of frank with the Iranian people. While under fire, during his battle for re-election in 2009, for his government’s failure to create jobs, he claimed he had reduced unemployment by ten percent. And he had. “How?” you may ask. By simply changing the definition of an “employed” person, so that anyone who worked one hour per week would be also considered as “employed”!

Deeply disheartening was that his quackery went largely unnoticed in many Muslim-majority and Latin American countries, as well as amongst numerous Western leftists, where he was seen as a true champion of the anti-imperialist cause, a true leader standing up for the world’s downtrodden in the face of all odds.

Ahmadinejad’s reaction to round after round of United Nations sanctions against Iran? “They’re nothing but pieces of scrap paper,” he said smirkingly.

Those “pieces of scrap paper,” which later caused a sharp decrease in the value of the national currency Rial, together with disastrous financial decisions, which fell to the right of the IMF, have now brought the Iranian economy to its knees: Radical subsidy cuts, the militarisation of the economy by selling a great portion of the public sector to the Revolutionary Guards, rampant unemployment and skyrocketing inflation have all pushed Iran’s weakest to the edge.

As Iranians sunk deeper and deeper into destitution, they witnessed how the president that once vowed he would bring Iran’s oil revenues to their homes made pledges to use the country’s colossal oil wealth to build public housing, factories and plants in Bolivia and Venezuela. They saw Ahmadinejad’s closest aides embroiled in various embezzlement scandals in embezzlement scandals worth billions of dollars.

Under the guise of loyalty to the ideals of the Islamic Revolution, Ahmadinejad showed utter disregard for the rule of law, meritocracy, civil liberties and freedom of speech.

Yet with the June 2009 elections looming, none of these transgressions were enough to deter the hardline governing elite, including the Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guard, from showing their unwavering support for Khamenei’s enfant terrible. In fact, the very prospect of a reformist victory, especially one led by Khamenei’s old friend and rival Mir Hossein Mousavi, was enough to unify the conservatives behind Ahmadinejad.

And unify they did.

When Ahmadinejad’s Interior Ministry hastily—and rather clumsily—announced him as the victor of the 2009 race, massive protests broke out across the country against alleged voter fraud. Millions rallied around the slogan “Where is my vote?” The colour green, which until had been the colour of the Mousavi campaign, quickly turned into a symbol for the well-disciplined demonstrations, which became known as the Green Movement.

The protests, which were largely spontaneous and peaceful, reached their crescendo on 15 June 2009, when at least three million converged at Tehran’s Azadi Square in silence.

On 19 June, during Friday prayers a week after the Election Day, Khamenei told the protesters in no unclear terms that not only the allegations fraud baseless, but that his views were actually closer to those of Ahmadinejad than former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, who, during the heated televised presidential debates, had been scandalously accused by Ahmadinejad of corruption as well as alliance with the reformist candidate Mousavi.

Khamenei’s love affair would soon prove costly.

Crisis of legitimacy

The birth of the Green Movement in June 2009 and its violent suppression by the authorities would plunge the Islamic Republic deep into an unprecedented crisis of legitimacy, as a significant segment of the population felt betrayed and shamelessly excluded from their country’s political process.

During Ahmadinejad’s presidency, Iran turned into the world’s worst jailer of journalists. It was regularly listed as one of the world’s enemies of the Internet. Security forces rounded up scores of reformists activists and figures, who later received lengthy jail terms. The human rights situation worsened to the extent that the UN human rights council had to appoint a special rapporteur to monitor conditions there. (Of course, none of this is to suggest that that executive branch was single-handedly responsible for all of the crackdowns on dissent during these years. The backing of the leader, who has the military and intelligence apparatus under his command, was essential in stifling the “seditionist” greens and their democratic aspirations.

The house arrest of Green movement leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi in February 2011—which was ordered by Khamenei himself—was seen by the hardliners as the last nail in the coffin of a movement whose death they continued to declare repeatedly, even long after its “death.” [4]

But this would have little more than an analgesic effect. The very low turnout in the March 2012 parliamentary elections once more demonstrated the severity of the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy deficit. Yet the reformist boycott of the ballets did little to provide a way out of the political stalemate.

In a long and winding process that began to a great extent with the large-scale disqualification of 2,500 reformists from the 2004 legislative elections, and reached its climax in the 2009 presidential election, the squeezing out of the reformist factions out of the power structure seemed to have entered an irreversible phase. There was little or no sign that the ruling establishment was willing to unclench its fist in any way. The lines of division between the state and the reformist opposition had become clearer than ever before. Even when cracks began to appear in what had appeared to be an impenetrable relation between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei, the fear of a reformist comeback (or the “green sedition”) was never to be taken lightly.

With the June 2013 presidential elections looming, a debate began to simmer within the opposition movement on the most realistic and least costly strategy to escape the political deadlock. Some saw a reformist takeover of the executive branch through participation in the electoral race as a last ditch attempt at changing the status quo and reviving the more republican interpretations of the constitution.

Yet for some sceptics, the mere thought of taking part in elections provoked nothing short of revulsion. They saw any participation in the electoral process as bestowing legitimacy on the ruling elite. They cynically reminded everyone of what had happened the last they went to polling stations to vote. For them, voting was tantamount to a betrayal of the plight of the many political prisoners, and above all, the protesters slain in the post-election clampdowns of 2009. “How can we vote when Mousavi and Karroubi are under house arrest?” they asked.

Others were more pragmatic and were instead primarily concerned about an “engineering” of votes similar to 2009. And then, there was the towering wall of the Guardian Council, Iran’s hard-line electoral watchdog, which could at will bar candidates from running in the elections.

In order to have a shot at the presidency, popular wisdom suggested that the reformists would have to turn to a candidate that would a) succeed in bypassing the Guardian Council, b) win by a large margin in order to reduce the likelihood of fraud.

And thus, the reformists initially turned to former president Mohammad Khatami. His superstar-like popularity made him the best available option for winning the race in June. In addition, Khatami was a former president and, as many believed, the Guardian Council would find it extremely difficult to disqualify him from the elections!

But when it became clear that Khatami was determined not to run, another former president, Hashemi Rafsanjani, officially registered as a candidate. News of Rafsanjani’s registration had been enough to rekindle a burst of hope for many ordinary citizens. But this was short lived. The prevalent mood quickly turned into one of despair when the Guardian Council dropped its bombshell on the nation: The name of Hashemi Rafsanjani—former president, parliament speaker and a close confident of the revolution’s leader Imam Khomeini—was not on the list of eight approved candidates seen fit to run for the presidential elections.

The list included five conservatives, one independent and two “quasi-reformists” (Mohammad Reza Aref, first vice-president during Khatami’s presidency, and Hassan Rouhani, a centrist and Iran’s former Supreme National Security Council Chief), who did not appear to pose a serious threat to yet another conservative victory.

As the presidential race got underway in May, there was very little to suggest a competitive and exuberant campaign similar to that of 2009. With the events of four years ago fresh in their minds, many of the disgruntled voters of 2009 viewed Aref and Rouhani with great suspicion, mainly for their seemingly shaky commitment to the reform movement, in particular their failure to come out in full support of the Green Movement. They were seen as part of another ploy to make a rubber stamp election process appear more legitimate.

For the less cynical voters, it wasn’t entirely clear if Aref and Rouhani stood any chance of garnering enough votes. Even if either men could deliver an upset, which didn’t really seem like a plausible scenario, who could guarantee that they could bring meaningful change to the country. And then, there was that unsettling and recurring question that arose from the moment Rouhani and Aref announced their candidacy: what was Khatami ever able to achieve during his eight years in office? He had, after all, won the 1997 election by a landslide and still could not fully his campaign promises of political liberalisation, despite undeniable strides made during his tenure.

But criticism of Rouhani’s conduct during the 2009 unrest did not come exclusively from the opposition. In early May, a site affiliated with the hardliners discussed whether Rouhani had “passed” the “test of sedition”. It complained that Rouhani had remained largely “silent” on the events of 2009 and maintained a very “ambiguous” stance on towards the turmoil. “Some of his conduct points to his implicit support for the sedition,” the article added, while criticising Rouhani for making remarks such as “the people’s criticisms must be addressed” and “some [within the ruling elite] have adopted a radical approach”. However, the piece does see a bright spot in Rouhani’s track record: in February 2011 he called the opposition protests in support of the Arab Spring “un-Islamic” and “anti-national”!

A turning point

Within the reformist camp, the prevalent atmosphere in the early days of the election race was that of doom and gloom. Fully aware of this, Aref and Rouhani set out to convince the general public that not only was there vote would make a difference, but also that they were the only genuine antitheses to the status quo.

When asked how his presidency would impact foreign policy in a country where the leader has the final say in foreign policy, Rouhani underlined the stark differences in the handling of Iran’s nuclear negotiations before and during Ahmadinejad’s reign.

During televised debates, both men launched relentless attacks against the Ahmadinejad administration’s economic policies.

Rouhani’s campaign made extensive use of imagery and testimonies by Khatami and Rafsanjani to highlight his reformist leanings. The words “moderation” figured centrally in his speeches, wherever he went. He promised that his government would be the “government of hope and prudence” and stressed his foreign policy credentials, in particular his role in the nuclear talks during his tenure as chief negotiator. In doing so, he turned the presidential debates into a very blunt debate on Iran’s nuclear programme and the international sanctions that had crippled the country’s economy.

During a fiery television debate, after being accused by conservative Tehran Mayor Mohammad and former military man Bagher Ghalibaf of favouring a heavy-handed approach towards the 1999 student protests, an outraged Rouhani fought back by saying that he was a lawyer, and unlike Ghalibaf, “I am not a colonel!” This memorable quote would later become the title of his campaign video, perhaps as part of a strategy to highlight his commitment to the rule of law and civil liberties, as opposed to his hard-line rivals who were bound to be an extension of the lawlessness of the military-security establishment, which had maintained a stranglehold on the country under Ahmadinejad. Rouhani even forced Ghalibaf on the defensive by accusing him of supporting the use of brute force in cracking down on the student protests.

Nevertheless, despite the positive momentum that Aref and Rouhani had generated amongst their support base, they did not have the numbers on their side. One of the most accurate polls, carried out as late as 10 June by a private research company called Information and Public Opinion Solutions, showed that neither Aref nor Rouhani stood much chance of reaching to the runoff stage, let alone winning the election in the first round.

Having said that, Rouhani seemed to come across as a politician with charisma, straightforward, confident, and perhaps more importantly, capable of turning the situation around. As former British Foreign Secretary recounted from his meetings with Rouhani, he possesses “impressive flexibility”.[5] Rouhani continuously reminded voters that there was a key for addressing their woes.

In fact, the symbol of the Rouhani campaign, which was the source of some ridicule early on in the race,  was a key he brandished before the camera during a televised interview, a key that symbolised his vision to unlock the country’s problems and deliver Iran from the cold after eight years of Ahmadinejad.

Like Mousavi’s campaign, which chose green as its colour in 2009, Rouhani would also adopt a colour for his campaign: he went for indigo!

This was by no means the only uncanny resemblance to the green wave that swept the country in 2009. In fact, as election day neared, the similarities became even more striking. Only this time, the wave was indigo. Thousands upon thousands of enthusiastic voters were drawn to rallies and events organised by the Aref and Rouhani campaign rallies, which were increasingly awash with images of Mousavi and Karroubi, as well as placards calling for the release of all of Iran’s political prisoners. At times, Rouhani’s speech would be drowned in thunderous chants in support of Mousavi, which in the aftermath of the 2009 crackdowns was seen by authorities as nothing short of sacrilege.

The campaign participants consciously overlooked the pseudo-reformist positions of Aref and Rouhani and instead worked with what they had. They even aligned the candidates with the opposition leaders Mousavi and Karroubi.[6]

It was hard to tell whether it was Rouhani who had become emboldened by the voters or vice versa. Yet what’s clear is that the fear, relative passivity and despair induced by the repressive measures in the aftermath of the 2009 unrest had given way to the familiar space of popular politics.

The green movement, which had gone into a state of hibernation following their last major show of force in February 2012, perceptively turned the elections into a platform for making their mark on the political landscape of Iran, albeit in a highly regulated environment.

The relative laxities and freedoms that are characteristic of Iranian election seasons were also crucial in facilitating political mobilisation. As images of Rouhani’s rallies found their way onto Iran’s news agencies, the sea of green and indigo bandannas and ribbons left little room as to who Rouhani’s main support were.

This must have placed Rouhani in an awkwardly powerful and yet at the same time uncomfortable position. Fully mindful of the newfound hope amongst the disenchanted voters of 2009, who were now touting him as the flag bearer of political change, Rouhani was entirely conscious of the perils associated with being affiliated with the so-called “sedition.” And as Election Day approached, the slogans chanted became more radical.[7] Indeed, just days ahead of 14 June, a report by the IRGC-affiliated Fars news agency, which was later retracted, suggested that the Guardian Council was reconsidering whether or not to disqualify Rouhani from running in the race.

Yet, as mentioned before, despite the promising signs, even the most sanguine Rouhani supporter would find it difficult to predict a Rouhani victory. This helps explain a chant repeatedly heard at the rallies of Rouhani and Aref:  “Rouhani! Aref! Coalition! Coalition!”

If there’s anything predictable about Iranian politics, it is its unpredictability.

On the afternoon of Monday 10 June, Rouhani’s fortunes would take a favourable turn as Khatami, who had reached a consensus with a number of key pro-reform figures, would call on Aref to withdraw from the race in favour of unifying the reformist vote behind Rouhani. A day later, Rouhani would be leading the polls for the first time since the start of the race. Based on the IPOS poll, he now had around 26.6 percentage points with Ghalibaf trailing behind at 24.8 percent.

What happened later that week is now a told tale.

Soon after Hassan Rouhani was declared the victor of the elections, streets burst into joyous celebration.

Iran is the country of paradoxes, we often here. The paradox here was that the least doctrinally unyielding candidate amongst the six candidates was also the only clergyman in the race.

While for the reform movement, the new task at hand would be to press Rouhani on his election promises—improving the economy, resolving the nuclear issue, facilitating the release of political prisoners and greater freedom—the election results prompted serious questions for the hardliners, who had dominated the major centres of power in the country for the past eight years.[8]

Two of these concerns are addressed here:

An ‘election’ that haunts, still

The countless scenes of jubilant crowds marking the election of Rouhani as president often gave the impression that a long overdue atmosphere of national reconciliation had finally arrived, coincidentally, exactly four years after the turmoil that followed Iran’s 2009 presidential election. After all, Rouhani had successfully gained the trust of many centrists and moderate conservatives who saw no benefit in four (or eight) more years of a similar approach to governance under the presidency of someone like Jalili, seen by many as the Supreme Leader’s favourite. And unlike four years earlier, this time around the process seemed to run smoothly and without any objection from any of the candidates.

However, from the get-go it was clear that both the reformists and the hardliners were fully aware that this honeymoon would be short-lived, as the haunting memory of the 2009 elections and the allegations of massive fraud still loomed large in both camps.

The principlists have tried to present the 2013 election as yet another “proof” that claims of “engineering” the 2009 election were baseless, a desperate attempt by the reformists, who, owing to their sheer hypocrisy, proved incapable of conceding defeat. The same bad losers who wasted no time in embracing the 2013 election results, which also happened to be to their liking.

“Why have they not apologised?” the Supreme Leader asked a month and a half after the election.[9]

Habibollah Asghaoladi, a senior conservative figure, echoed Khamenei’s position and declared the 2009 election saga as a closed case. “There is no doubt that those who accused the establishment of fraud in 2009 … must today apologise to the people and God.”

He said those who rejected the soundness of the 2009 election results harboured a unique political culture. “[A culture] that mistrusts the people’s vote when it can’t get their votes, but calls it the most democratic of all elections when it can win their votes.”

However, such views barely withstand the sketchiest inspection. If anything, the 2013 elections and the manner in which they were held has only led to fiercer debates about the validity of the 2009 elections.

The case for fraud is wide open.

When polls across Iran came to a close at 11pm on 14 June, the country was brought to a standstill as Iranians restlessly awaited the election outcome that would seal their fate, as well as the fate of the wider region.[10]

Yet as the hours and minutes ticked away, a number of jokes began to spring up in social networking sites and amongst mobile phone users. One joke that was circulating quite wildly was that it was taking longer than expected to announce the results, because this time around, they were actually counting all the votes!

It was of course a reference to the remarkable difference in the sheer speed at which the results of the 2009 and 2013 elections were announced. Unlike in 2009, when the results were announced with abnormal speed, this time the vote tally trickled in slowly.[11]

In 2013, the Interior Ministry would not release the first tallies until around 6am on 15 June, when less than 862,000 votes had been counted. Yet few could forget that in the widely disputed 2009 election, 28 million votes had been counted by around the same time (6:10am). Bear in mind that very shortly after the polls closed in the 2009 election, Iran’s official news agency had already announced Ahmadinejad’s re-election as president! And it wouldn’t be until around 8:20pm on Saturday 15 June that the Interior Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar would announce the final results and Rouhani as the victor of the race.

Or take for instance the bizarre phenomenon of higher than 100 percent turnout in the provinces of Yazd and Kerman in 2009! However, in 2013, the recorded turnout was 86 percent and 77 percent respectively.

From what we know so far about Iran’s 2013 presidential election, there’s little evidence to suggest that the process was not fraud-free. But in no way does this resolve the serious irregularities, anomalies[12] and questionable practices that gave rise to the allegation of wide-spread rigging in 2009. (Of course one could criticise the undemocratic nature of the Guardian Council’s vetting of the candidates, but our prime concern here is the soundness and validity of the announced results.)

Another insightful aspect of the 2013 results is the extremely narrow margin of Rouhani’s victory. Rouhani won 50.70 percent of the ballots, that is 18,613,329 votes out of a total of 36,704,156 valid ballots counted.[13] This means that had Rouhani lost 257,000 of his total votes to any of the other candidates, the race would have entered a runoff stage pitting Rouhani against Ghalibaf.

If we are to concede that the authorities were in fact capable of carrying out a monumental fraud (millions of votes) in 2009, we are then faced with an important question: what stopped the Iranian establishment from doing so again in 2013, when a far less noticeable manipulation of the votes (less than 257,000) would have substantially dented the prospects of a moderate, one with indisputable ties to the pro-reform movement, taking control of the executive branch. Rouhani had not made his sympathies for figures such as Rafsanjani and Khatami a secret. Moreover, both former presidents had failed to gain Khamenei’s vote of confidence for taking part in the elections.

The absence of a genuine will to systematically fabricate the votes on a broad scale can be attributed to a number of explanations, each of which bears its own weight. Some had suggested that the conflicting interest of war between the holders (Interior Ministry) and the supervisors (Guardian Council) of the election would lower the chances of rigging[14]. This might have been an important deterring factor, but it fails why this conflict of interest did not prevent the tempering of votes in the March 2012 parliamentary elections, which were boycotted by most opposition forces, especially the Green Movement.[15] Which brings us to the next point.

A more plausible explanation for the uncontested nature of the election process lies in the Green Movement and the shadow it has cast over Iran’s political scene. While the country’s leadership neither trusted nor had any love lost for reformism,[16] the vivid fear of a reformist resurgence in the form of the massive 2009 protests was enough to convince the leadership of the absolute necessity of at least appearing as neutral and worthy of the public’s trust. Not having anyone remotely pro-reform in the presidential office would be an ideal for the Supreme Leader, but not at the cost of being seen as a tyrant willing to appropriate the people’s votes when he sees fit.

As such, in the months leading up to 2013 elections, the Supreme Leader made it clear on five occasions[17] that he was not taking anyone’s side in the race. In a rare remark, he even called on those opposing the establishment to participate for the sake of the country’s interests. As he was casting his vote, he made it clear that even members of his family were unaware who he was voting for.[18]

For the Supreme Leader, coming to terms with a Rouhani presidency might have been a bitter pill to swallow, even if it entailed going sulkily down the path of national reconciliation at some later stage.

Despite the myth so naively and comfortably, perpetuated[19] by proponents of hawkish policies against Iran, it was neither sanctions nor the threat of military action that brought about the current change,[20] as small as it may appear, in Iran. What did in fact deter the authorities from going down the path of an electoral coup similar to 2009 was the largely peaceful opposition movement that once more made its mark in the political arena.

Not a ‘reformist’, but indebted to reform

Secondly, the election results left many hardliners, in particular those with an existential need to stymie reform, in disarray.

Although factional cohesion had already manifested itself in the growing rift between Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Ahmadinejad—the latter marginalised for his ties to the “deviant current”—the 2013 elections brought these rifts back into focus.

Also, until the very end of the election campaign the conservatives proved incapable of producing a serious coalition to counter the surge in Rouhani (and Aref’s) popularity. The failure to reach a consensus cost the principlists (conservatives) a crushing defeat at the hands of Rouhani, who was the reformists’ third,[21] or even fourth, most desirable (and pragmatic) choice to run for president.

For Iran’s hardliners, the picture does indeed appear to be quite grim. They lost to a candidate endorsed partially[22] by the reformist factions whose capacity to fully mobilise politically had been severely constrained by four years of suppression, and yet was able, albeit hesitantly, to make the most out of the ballots.

Little wonder that a day after the elections results were announced, Kayhan, a newspaper who hardline editor Hossein Shariatmadari is chosen by Ayatollah Khamenei himself, published a piece on its front page titled, “Rouhani is not a reformist. The reformist candidate had less than ten percent of the votes.”[23]

Kayhan seemed to have forgotten that just days earlier, it was rumoured Rouhani’s very candidacy was hanging in the balance, or that his victory was contingent upon a Khatami-led consensus urging Aref to step aside. But.

None of this seemed to matter for the principlists who were preoccupied with proving Rouhani’s complete detachment from the reformists, in particular the “seditionist” Green Movement.

Yet when the parliament met in August to debate Rouhani’s cabinet nominations, talk of “sedition” seemed to dominate the discussions. The lawmakers seemed to be concerned less with the nominees’ aptitude in the proposed ministerial roles and more with their alleged sympathies with the “dead” Green Movement.

The MPs had good reason to suspect Rouhani’s tied to the “sedition”. Some of his cabinet nominees also served under the reformist presidency of Khatami and others had expressed solidarity with the Green Movement. Rouhani had, after all, never rushed to distance themselves from the opposition chants at his rallies, or from Hashemi and Khatami,

I set foot on this path along with the country’s elders, Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani and … Mohammad Khatami. But my hope lies in you, the youth. Let us bring an end to radicalism … I would like to say a phrase on your behalf … To the men who have driven the country to this state: The people no longer want you—Rouhani, at a campaign speech in Tehran on 8 June 2013.[24]

Nevertheless, none of what’s been said about Rouhani’s reformist affiliations is to suggest he is fully committed to the very reforms sought after by Khatami and the reformist factions that backed him between 1997 and 2005.

Just a day before the 2013 presidential election, Emad Bahavar, a young political activist imprisoned since June 2009, shared his thoughts on why he was supporting Rouhani’s presidential bid. In a piece titled “Movementalising elections”, Bahavar differentiates between a “democrat” and what he calls a “carrier of democracy,” someone whose role, either in society or power, has potential to foster democratisation in the country.[25]

A “carrier of democracy”, that convenient overlapping of pragmatism, experience, realism, and of course optimism.

Rouhani might not be a true democrat, but in four or eight years’ time, we might very well look upon his presidency and conclude that he did more to advance democracy in Iran than he’d ever care to take credit for.

In June 2013, a new phenomenon emerged in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The combination[26] of conventional models of political mobilisation coupled with movement-like street demonstrations manufactured a figurehead for the pro-democracy movement.

Rouhani is not a “seditionist”, he is indebted to the “sedition”.

A millennia old myth?

Reflecting on the political upheavals of contemporary Iran, Ali Mazroeei, a former reformist MP and top economic advisor to Khatami, observes that few Iranian political figures have ever actually died in dignity.[27] From the time of the Constitutional Revolution in 1906, political figures, both rulers and opponents, were either executed or died while in exile, prison, or under torture.

As it happens, Mazrooei himself was also forced into exile after the Iranian government launched a wave of arrests against reformist figures following the disputed 2009 elections. The crackdowns resulted in an exodus of Iranian dissidents and activists fleeing the country.

Mazrooei recounts the “futile cycle” that is so characteristic of modern Iranian history: Revolution, crackdown, coup, revolution, revolt, etc.

Homa Katouzian claims that the issue of succession “almost invariably presented a problem” in Iran and it was never really clear who would succeed to the throne after the ruler’s death. He asserts that unlike Europe, where society has always been founded upon a form of law or custom between the state and society,[28] Iranian succession and legitimacy was never really bound by any written or unwritten legal framework or contract.[29] In attempting to examine legitimacy and succession in Iran, Katouzian resorts to the principle of Farrah-ye Izadi, meaning God’s Grace: the theory that justified arbitrary rule as a gift from God. The only practical test of possessing grace in the real world was the ruler’s ability to gain and maintain power. Therefore rebellion was “legitimate” once it succeeded in ousting the ruler![30]

And thus the fall of one arbitrary rule would come to an end with rebellion and be replaced by chaos until a new state restores arbitrary rule,[31] normally by utilising its total wrath. As Katouzian explains, up to the turn of the century the word siyasat had two meanings: firstly, the art of successful governance; secondly, punishment and execution of fallen notables and state officials.

This meaning of siyasat is captured in an old Iranian proverb: “politics has no father or mother.”

Starting with the 1906 Iranian Constitutional Revolution,[32] all the other major political movements in twentieth century Iran—the democratic movement constituted around the nationalisation of oil (1951-1953); the 1979 Islamic Revolution; the Reform Movement triggered by the 1997 Reform Movement; and the Green Movement of 2009[33]—were centred around subordinating power.

A number of promising signs in the weeks and months following Rouhani’s election as president have given rise to a sense of cautious optimism for genuine change and reform in Iran. Some have warily suggested that we might be witnessing an unfolding of an Iranian Glasnost. This caution is rooted principally in a nostalgic desire to avoid a repeat of the setbacks suffered by Khatami after he swept into office in 1997.

While Rouhani is likely to face many of the obstacles faced by Khatami in carrying out reform, he enjoys a much closer relationship with Khamenei and is seen as less of a direct threat to those that champion an undemocratic reading of the constitution. In addition, the devastating sanctions, as well as the weakening of one of its closest allies in the region, Syria, has helped to create a space for a more pragmatic approach, both in dealing with foreign policy issues and domestic affairs.

All of these can prove indispensable for Rouhani as he navigates the political minefield that Khatami was confronted with.

The Supreme Leader’s recent call for “heroic flexibility” in conducting diplomacy is in line with this more pragmatic outlook, which has resulted in a genuine hope for resolving Iran’s standoff with the West over its nuclear programme and perhaps even breakthroughs in its relations with the United States.

A number of prominent political prisoners and activists have been released and some reports suggests that tens of convicted political prisoners are to receive a pardon from Ayatollah Khamenei. And in a further sign of ending (or at least minimising) the military forces’ involvement in civilian society, the country’s armed forces joint chief of staff, Major General Hassan Firouzabadi has signalled the readiness of Iran’s armed forces to relinquish its role in the economy.

As mentioned before, political openings have occurred in Iran before, only to be followed by greater stumbling blocks on the path to reform.

The Shah did indeed free political prisoners and allow greater political freedoms in the late 1970s, however, as history would soon reveal, this was seen as too little, too late, and the fate of 2,500 years of monarchy would succumb to the millennia-old doctrine of “God’s Grace”!

35 years later, another Iranian state has once again arrived at a crossroads in its history.

On 15 June 2009, as millions of angry voters marched onto the streets and chanted “Mousavi! Mousavi! Get my vote back,” few could predict that exactly four years later, they would be chanting joyfully, “Mousavi! Mousavi! We got your vote back!” It is a telling tale of the centrality of the Iran’s 2009 presidential election in achieving national reconciliation and undoing, at least to some degree, the crisis of legitimacy that it triggered. The on-going extrajudicial[34] and arbitrary house arrest of Mousavi, Karroubi, and Mousavi’s wife Zahra Rahnavard, which has gone on for nearly one thousand days, is but one of the symbols of the arbitrary exercise of power by Iran’s Supreme Leader. Therefore it would appear unlikely that any reconciliation will be complete before the opposition leaders are released from house arrest. Until then, the deep wounds of the 2009 unrest shall remain raw.

The events leading up to Rouhani’s election win demonstrated how a politician seen by many as a centrist can emerge as a forebear of reform. To what extent Rouhani will resist this role remains to be seen. If he succeeds, then maybe indigo really is just another shade of green.


[1] “With a Moderate as Iran’s New Face, Netanyahu Will Struggle to Draw up Support for an Attack – Diplomacy & Defense,” Haaretz.com, accessed October 22, 2013, http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/.premium-1.529981.

[2] “Ahmadinejad: Israel Is a Germ of Corruption That Will Be Removed,” Haaretz.com, accessed October 22, 2013, http://www.haaretz.com/news/ahmadinejad-israel-is-a-germ-of-corruption-that-will-be-removed-1.252296.

[3] Jeffrey Goldberg, “Castro: ‘No One Has Been Slandered More Than the Jews’,” The Atlantic, September 7, 2010, http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2010/09/castro-no-one-has-been-slandered-more-than-the-jews/62566/.

[5] Jack Straw, “Iran’s New Leader Offers Hope for the Region,” Telegraph.co.uk, June 16, 2013, sec. worldnews, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/iran/10123984/Irans-new-leader-offers-hope-for-the-region.html.

[6] Kadivar Mohammad Ali, “A New Oppositional Politics: The Campaign Participants in Iran’s 2013 Presidential Election,” Jadaliyya, June 22, 2013, http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/12383/a-new-oppositional-politics_the-campaign-participa.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Khabar Online, accessed October 22, 2013, http://khabaronline.ir/detail/297373/Politics/election.

[11] Mohammad Ali, “A New Oppositional Politics.”

[12] Ali Ansari, Preliminary Analysis of the Voting Figures in Iran’s 2009 Presidential Election (Chatham House, June 21, 2009), http://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/default/files/public/Research/Middle%20East/iranelection0609.pdf.

[13] “Rohani Becomes Iran’s New President,” PressTV, June 15, 2013, http://www.presstv.ir/detail/2013/06/15/309169/rohani-becomes-irans-new-president/.

[14] Seyedamir Hossein Mahdavi, “Can Iran Surprise by Holding a ‘Healthy’ Election in June?” (May 2013), http://www.brandeis.com/crown/publications/meb/MEB73.pdf.

[15] Sajjad Savage, “Epic or Farce: Preliminary Assessment of Iran’s Parliamentary Elections (Part One),” Jadaliyya, April 9, 2012, http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/4964/epic-or-farce_preliminary-assessment-of-irans-parl.

[16] Mahdavi, “Can Iran Surprise by Holding a ‘Healthy’ Election in June?”.

[17] Hossein Bastani, “Why was there no ‘fraud’ in the 1392 elections? [Chera dar entekhabate 1392 ‘taghalob’ nashod?],” BBC Persian, June 17, 2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/persian/iran/2013/06/130616_l39_analysis_presidential_rigging_ir92.shtml.

[18] Ibid.

[19] David Rothkopf, “What’s New Is Nuance,” Foreign Policy, September 25, 2013, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/09/25/global_warming.

[20] Writing for Foreign Policy, David Rothkopf makes the claim that “the fact that it was Obama’s tough sanctions that helped create the conditions for Rouhani’s election”

[21] Bastani, “Why was there no ‘fraud’ in the 1392 elections? [Chera dar entekhabate 1392 ‘taghalob’ nashod?].”

[22] For instance, the Freedom Movement of Iran and the Participation Front (Mosharekat) chose to endorse Rouhani’s candidacy just days before the election, and yet the Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organisation refused to legitimise what they saw as a rubber-stamp election. Indeed, despite the role of reformist figures such as Khatami in building a consensus around Rouhani, the major opposition factions were far from unanimous on whether to even endorse any of the candidates, let alone endorse a centrist such as Rouhani with ties to the security establishment and a good relationship with the Supreme Leader. This state of uncertainty persisted even until the very day of voting.

[23] “Rouhani is not a reformist. The reformist candidate had less than ten percent of the votes [Rouhani eslah-talab nist. Namzade eslah-talaban dah darsad ham rai nadasht],” Kayhan, June 16, 2013.

[24] “Rouhani: Some Consider Domestic Poverty and Foreign Humiliation as Pride [Rouhani: Ede-i Faghre Dakheli Va Tahghire Khareji Ra Eftekhar Mipendarand],” Meher News Agency, June 8, 2013, http://www.mehrnews.com/TextVersionDetail/2071653.

[25] Bahavar Emad, “Movementalising elections [Jonbeshi kardane entekhabat],” Rooz Online, June 13, 2013, http://www.roozonline.com/persian/news/newsitem/archive/2013/june/13/article/-fbc84a28f3.html.

[26] Mohammad Ali, “A New Oppositional Politics.”

[27] Mazrooei Ali, “Half a century of memories and experience [nim gharn khatere va tajrobeh],” Kaleme, May 31, 2013, http://www.kaleme.com/1392/03/10/klm-145748/?theme=fast.

[28] Homa Katouzian, “Arbitrary Rule: a Comparative Theory of State, Politics and Society in Iran,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 24, no. 1 (1997): 49–73, doi:10.1080/13530199708705638.

[29] H. Katouzian, “Legitimacy and Succession in Iranian History,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 23, no. 1–2 (January 1, 2003): 234–245, doi:10.1215/1089201X-23-1-2-234.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Katouzian, “Arbitrary Rule.”

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ali Alizadeh, “COMMENTARY-Neither Theocracy nor Secularism? Politics in Iran,” Radical Philosophy 2, no. 158 (December 2009): 2–9.

[34] To date, no court has tried Mousavi, Karroubi or Rahnavard.

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