An Outbreak of Reasonableness in Tehran: Top Ten Conclusions from Iran’s Early Election Returns

Update: Centrist Hassan Rouhani is Iran’s new president, having won a massive victory in a field of 6 candidates. 13:19 ET, 6/15/13

Early election returns in Iran suggest that former National Security adviser and nuclear negotiator Hassan Rouhani may have won over 50% of the vote, in which case he will have won without needing to go to a second round. Too early to tell if that is so. While it is true that the president in Iran is more like the typical US vice president and is relatively powerless, he can nevertheless set a tone and initiate policies slightly different from those of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Iran is not yet a totalitarian dictatorship, and Khamenei himself has sometimes been forced to tack with the wind. Any change will be slow and at the margins, but it could nevertheless be significant in a very polarized world.

1. People are still willing to come out and vote for president in impressive numbers, despite the widespread feeling that the 2009 polls were tinkered with by the regime in favor of populist hard liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Even if the 75% turnout claimed by the Iranian press is exaggerated, turnout was impressive.

2. The poor showing of nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili is a slap in the face both of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and of outgoing president Ahmadinejad. The most hard line of the candidates got only 13% of the vote in early returns.

3. Those who believed that Khamenei would try to fix this election for Jalili as he is accused by the Green movement of doing four years ago were mistaken. Either the Leader feels that he has sufficient control of the country to risk a mildly reformist candidate like Hasan Rouhani winning, or the turmoil the country faced in 2009 chastened him and he decided to let the public blow off steam by giving him a president he isn’t entirely happy with.

4. The US economic blockade of Iran has produced a great deal of dissatisfaction with the status quo, and status quo candidates did poorly as a result. Ahmadinejad’s easy money policies have run inflation up to 30%, and imported goods have become expensive as US sanctions badly hit the valueof the riyal.

5. The hawks in Washington will miss the quirky Ahmadinejad, who often said things that seemed buffoonish or menacing or both at once. The new president will present a much better image of Iran, which will reduce the country’s vulnerability to international hostility.

6. Hassan Rouhani, the hands-down winner as I write, promised more effective diplomacy with the West, and the Iranian public seems to have liked that message more than the obstreperousness of Jalili. Rouhani said, in al-Sharq al-Awsat:

“The Iran–US relationship is a complex and difficult issue. A bitter history, filled with mistrust and animosity, marks this relationship. It has become a chronic wound whose healing is difficult but possible, provided that good faith and mutual respect prevail. . . . As a moderate, I have a phased plan to deescalate hostility to a manageable state of tension and then engage in promotion of interactions and dialogue between the two peoples to achieve détente, and finally reach to the point of mutual respect that both peoples deserve.”

7. Rouhani has pledged more transparency about what he says is Iran’s peaceful nuclear enrichment program, aimed at producing fuel for nuclear reactors to generate electricity. He told al-Sharq al-Awsat:

” Iran has an exclusively peaceful nuclear program, which under international law is lawful and indisputable. A politically motivated campaign of misinformation has persistently attempted to cast doubts on the exclusively peaceful nature of this program. This campaign is being fueled and directed first and foremost by Israel, in order to divert international attention not only from its own clandestine and dangerous nuclear weapons program, but also from its destabilizing and inhuman policies and practices in Palestine and the Middle East. Regrettably, the Security Council has discredited itself by allowing the United States to impose this counter-productive Israeli agenda. If elected, I will reverse this trend by restoring international confidence . . . Nuclear weapons have no role in Iran’s national security doctrine, and therefore Iran has nothing to conceal. But in order to move towards the resolution of Iran’s nuclear dossier, we need to build both domestic consensus and global convergence and understanding through dialogue.”

8. Rouhani says he wants Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to hold open presidential elections in 2014. This stance is not the same as asking al-Assad to step down, but it obviously opens the door to al-Assad’s removal, since he could not possibly win such an election. The statement seems to me to imply that Rouhani could live with a post-Assad Syria. (But note that Rouhani, even if he becomes president, would not be in a position to pursue this question, since Khamenei is in charge of Syria policy and the Baath Party is not going to hold pluralist free elections.)

9. Rouhani wants to tamp down the Middle East Cold War between Iran and Saudi Arabia: “On your question regarding Saudi Arabia, I plan to reverse the recently exacerbated [and] unfortunate rivalry between the two countries into mutual respect and mutually beneficial arrangements and cooperation to enhance security and restore stability in the region.” He continues, however, to support Shiite majority rights in Bahrain, a point of contention between Shiite Iran and the Sunni countries of the Gulf.

10. Rouhani will attempt to heal the severe rift between Green Movement liberals and Khomeinist hard liners by getting Mirhossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, leaders of the 2009 protest movement, released from house arrest. He said,

“I was Iran’s national Security Advisor for sixteen years during the administrations of Rafsanjani and Khatami. Therefore, I know how to deal with sensitive issues. If elected, I will do my best to secure the release of those who have been incarcerated following the regrettable events of 2009. I know that the constitutional powers of the president in Iran do not extend to the areas outside the realm of the executive branch of the system. However, I am quite optimistic that I can muster the necessary domestic consensus to improve the present situation of Mr. Mousavi and Mr. Karrubi.

Posted in Iran | 32 Responses | Print |

32 Responses

  1. One should not assume Bashar would lose such an election. He has a solid base of support in any circumstance, broader support based on present concerns, and very few public adversaries who inspire loyalty and confidence. It is quite interesting to note that the first Egyptian presidential vote returned only a hair-thin loss for the old guard.

  2. “1. People are still willing to come out and vote for president in impressive numbers, despite the widespread feeling that the 2009 polls were tinkered with by the regime in favor of populist hard liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Even if the 75% turnout claimed by the Iranian press is exaggerated, turnout was impressive.”

    Echoing Bush v. Gore tinkering. Except US turnout is lower. Ergo, Iran is more democratic or representative than the ‘primitive’ US democracy.

  3. Warped rendering of the election, Juan, and Iranian politics in general. But then, what can one expect from a neo-liberal but sour grapes.

    Had you bet me on voter turnout, you’d have lost–big time.

    I voted for Rouhani at a polling station set up here in northern California. Am quite pleased with the results, so far.

    • Can you clarify how Juan is a neo-liberal? “Had you bet me on voter turnout, you’d have lost–big time”. How exactly do you know what he would have bet? Do you have some sort of prescience? Besides, how is any of this “sour grapes”?

  4. Enjoyed this column today, Juan. It gives me hope for reconciliation between Iran and the U.S. Have you read the recent articles about Iran by Sharmine Narwani in Al Akhbar English? She provides views and insights we are not getting anywhere in the U.S. MSM.

  5. Rohani was the logical choice for the supreme custodian. The regime needed to restore its legitimacy. Rohani even allowing to be a candidate indicates that the Supreme Custodian wants to negotiate with the West. We will see. Rohani has no power or say in foreign policy matters. He will be only voicing the Wishes of the Supreme Leader. Rohani is not a reformer but he is better than Jalili. People mostly voted against Jalili.

  6. Iran is a pressure cooker and the so called reformers function as the release valve to let out the pressure before everything explodes. Khamenie plays this game to his advantage every time. The regime will survive for the next hundred years without any improvement either in social, economic or political sphere until the country runs out of oil and there is nothing to loot and line the pocket of Shia religious caste and their vast family tribes.

  7. Just reading my facebook page with friends and family in Iran who voted for Rohani:
    one of them said, “This was a “NO” vote to Rahbar (i.e. the supreme leader) in a democratic way.
    Another said, ” We know nothing will change but we are hoping against hope”

    Some who did not vote are saying to those voted that, ” from now every crime the regime commits, those voted would be viewed as the regime’s accomplices”…

    link to

  8. a) Considering that Khamenei was able to decide who could and who could not run for president, I’d not be so quick to say that the election was not fixed.

    b) Given your insistence in previous columns that Khamenei, not Ahmadinejad, was the ultimate authority in Iran — a claim I do not dispute — I’ll wait to see how much the nuclear negotiation policy changes, given that his opponent was the country’s nuclear negotiator.

  9. Numbers still coming in but if he fails to get over 50% does Khamenei have the incentive – or confidence – to increase the level of support for a candidate more to his liking. Thinking back to 05 when Ahmadinejad received 19 percent but then took the second round with about 60 percent of the ballots

  10. Professor Cole,
    1- Do you not even entertain the possibility that Ahmadinejad’s winning the 2009 election was fair? What is the difference between you and the teabaggers if you are just as incapable of updating your wrong opinion (not today, but in the past 4 years)? There was no evidence to begin with—well, except that people you liked claimed the election was rigged.

    What would it look like to you if Republicans cried of irregularities whenever they lost but praised the election whenever they got elected? Is that what you think a democracy is?

    2- Despite the hoo-haa around Rouhani’s election, he has been Khamenei’s representative in the Iranian Security Council (just not it’s chair, which is apparently appointed by the president). so I don’t get all the portrayal of him as someone who is going to be at odds with Khameneni.
    Do you think it is more accurate that his election was more of a NO to Ahmadinejad’s hotheadedness than to anything else?

    • Can you at least maintain some proper decorum? “What is the difference between you and the teabaggers”

      I don’t think that an academic like Juan fits the bill for being a “tea bagger”, a group who REVEL in their ignorance and oppose “elites”.

    • I am still running into Republicans in the U. S. who claim that both of Obama’s wins were the result of electoral fraud by groups such as ACORN (even though ACORN went out of business two years before the last election). Many Republicans still refuse to recognize the legitimacy of Obama’s presidency, still claiming that he was born in Kenya, is a secret Soviet agent (disregarding the fact that the USSR imploded over two decades ago), and other such wild conspiracy theories.

      On the other hand, I’ve never met a Republican who thinks that there was anything fraudulent about the 2000 presidential election, where tens of thousands of Floridians were disenfranchised, massive numbers of ballots were thrown out, and the election was finally decided by five people who were appointed to their position by George W. Bush’s dad or his dad’s former boss.

  11. These are the figures announced by the Iranian Interior Ministry, for those who are interested. This is the first time since President Khatami’s reformist government that the election has not gone to the the second round. This shows that when the elections are relatively fair and free, the majority of Iranians opt for change and reform. Here are the figures:

    “Iranian Interior Minister Mostafa Mohammad-Najjar announced on Saturday that of a total of 36,704,156 ballots counted, Rohani won 50.70 percent of the ballots with 18,613,329 votes.

    Principlist candidate Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf came in behind Rohani with 6,077,292 votes. Principlist Saeed Jalili won 4,168,946 votes, and independent Mohsen Rezaei 3,884,412 votes. Principlist Ali-Akbar Velayati and independent Mohammad Gharazi ranked at the bottom of the list, with 2,268,753 and 446,015 votes, respectively.

    A total of 1,245,409 ballots were declared invalid.

    Nearly 50.5 million Iranians, including more than 1.6 million first-time voters, were eligible to participate in the June 14 elections. The Interior Ministry put voter turnout at 72.7 percent.”

    • Farhang: I disagree. I think about 30% of Iranians are solid reformists, about 30% are solid conservatives, and the votes of this 60% are predictable from one election to another. However, the remaining 40%’s votes are highly dependent on contingencies: candidates’ charisma, character, and liability; the perception of the candidate as a political insider or outsider, recent political and economic developments (effects of sanctions; handing out money as Ahmadinejad did in his provincial trips, etc.).

      Your position is like saying that Obama’s election proves that if American elections were fair, the Democrats would always win! In fact, scientific polls show that the public’s preferences could shift significantly in a matter of days; thus Ghalibaf lost a lot of support in the last ten days prior to the vote. To try to extrapolate the results of an election based on another one four years earlier or later is as absurd in Iran as it would be in the U.S.

      As for Rowhani, although he’s closer to the reformists, both he and the reformists characterize him as a “centrist,” i.e., somebody who takes a middle position between the conservatives and reformists. He is, after all, Khamene’i’s representative on the NSC. It’s entirely possible, indeed likely, that many fans of Ahmadinejad voted for Rowhani. In addition, Rohani was the only clergyman among the pool of candidates, and the one with the greatest charisma and talent in public speaking, factors that may have swayed some people.

      Let me close by saying that not all reformists think that the previous election was fraudulent. For example, Abbas Abdi says: “This idea that has been repeated for several years, that the opposite side can ultimately engineer the election [results], is false. This is a myth that should be gotten rid of once and for all” (Etemad Daily; for the link, see my other comment here). Another reformist, Akbar Ganji, wrote that it is entirely possible that in the previous election Ahmadinejad had the majority vote.

      Mohammad Esrafili

  12. Hello,

    All well and good, but I have questions:

    (1) To what degree has this guy been influenced by the U.S./U.K. block during negotiation functions?
    (2) Does Iran need that influence when the effect of it is readily seen in other national contexts that ‘democracy’ has been imposed into?
    (3) Is the fear factor imposed by a continuous and considerable threat of war on a civilian population indicative of democratic procedure?

  13. Rouhani: “As a moderate, I have a phased plan to deescalate hostility to a manageable state of tension and then engage in promotion of interactions and dialogue between the two peoples to achieve détente, and finally reach to the point of mutual respect that both peoples deserve.”

    Our two peoples, Americans and Iranians, do deserve mutual respect.

    Is there any chance, any hope, that any signs of such respect will be forthcoming from the major American media of news and opinion? Almost laughable, I know, yet let’s continue to hope …

    • Those remarks were for domestic consumption because people blame the sanctions on Khamnei. Without the Supreme Custodian’s permission, Rohani has no power. However, the fact that he allowed Rohani to win indicates that he is amenable to making a deal. Khamenie’s regime has never been weaker. There are talks of even releasing Mousavi and Karoubi. Time will tell.

  14. Just like Islam with its written Sharia IRI’s constitution has been sealed in such a way that it cannot be touched internally. But one out of many approaches to invalidate such constitution is read below:

    “….Mehdi Haeri Yazdi, who argued that when a people are deemed so ignorant that they need a guardian, they cannot be assumed to have competence to choose that guardian, making the theory of the guardianship of the jurisprudent logically inconsistent.”

    From: “Distant Relations: Iran and Lebanon in the Last 500 Years, edited by Houchang Chehabi”

    link to

  15. Professor Cole,

    Could you speak to the realpolitik of negotiations with the West. How much control did Ahmadinejad have with regards to taking a hardline stance on Iranian nuclear aspirations. And if he did have control of the negotiations, was it only with the approval of Ayatollah Khameini? Furthermore, will Rouhani be able to marshal the support from the election and convert that to leverage against Khameini when sitting at the negotiating table? Or is Rouhani doomed for impotence as Khameini pulls the strings from behind the scenes?

  16. Wish the Iranian people the best. Hope they get some economic relief. Surprised by Khamanei’s urging everyone to vote, including those who don’t like the Islamic system. Must have surprised some conservatives hard-liners who will resist major reforms, but a few loosening of freedoms and domestic law and order changes for reformists may happen.

    Not expecting normalized ties with the US though, because of their squandering of opportunities in the past whenever Iran’s reformists or moderates gained traction, citing one excuse or another. Regional tensions, particularly Saudi Arabia, will continue to be troublesome.

  17. from all I’ve been reading for hours from my friends in Turkey, I suppose I should comment Iran for being the more democratic, rule-of-law regime.

    Police storming a hotel used as a field clinic and filling it with tear gas, using solvents of some sort in the water cannons.

    Gassing of Divan hotel: link to

    Egemen Bagis announced that protesters will be treated as terrorists.

  18. This is potentially very good news. I suppose we ought to assume that the State Department is reaching out through channels at this moment. Maybe even the Israelis? We’ll see.

    My question has to do with Khamenei. How much will he allow to change and does the election alter the previous constellation of power?

  19. Not all the reformists buy the conspiracy theory that the previous election was fraudulent.

    For example, Abbas Abdi says:

    “This idea that has been repeated for several years, that the opposite side can ultimately engineer the election [results], is false. This is a myth that should be gotten rid of once and for all.”

    (Link: link to )

    Another reformist, Akbar Ganji, wrote that it is entirely possible that in the previous election Ahmadinejad had the majority vote.

    Personally, I think many reformists found it too painful to recognize Ahmadinejad’s popularity and couldn’t bring themselves to admit it. Besides, in Iran, the average person is convinced that “the nation” thinks just like him/her; the nation can never be wrong; so, it would cause him/her an identity crisis to admit that the nation does not agree with him/her, since it would follow that he/she must be wrong.

    I think the nation can be wrong, and the popularity of Ahmadinejad is a good example of that.

    Mohmmad Esrafili

  20. I think the real significance of this election is that over the next 8 years Khamenai, Rafasanji, and many of old guard clerics will kick the bucket. The real fight is for the future of the country after these guys are out of the picture. Certainly, the sitting president will have an important say and a strong win in a seemingly democratic election gives him an even bigger role.

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