A Prudent Triumph

by Ali Reza Eshraghi

Nearly two weeks after Iran’s June 14 presidential election, there’s an unprecedented optimism in the air. Seemingly endless speculation is occurring on a daily basis about the make-up of president-elect Hassan Rouhani’s cabinet. At the same time, another debate is taking place over how Iran’s new government can be pressured to meet public demands without being rushed into radicalization.

Within this hopeful atmosphere, the fact that only a few weeks ago such a victory was unthinkable — it was, after all, only possible through a prudent marriage of convenience between idealism and realism — seems forgotten. Debunking this victory’s history will shed light on the birth of a new type of politicking in Iran.

What Happened

Pro-reform groups critical of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameni forced his allied security apparatus to play chess instead of engaging in a wrestling match. They won an unfair match in which they were not allowed to use their bishop and had lost many of their pawns.

Many analysts inside and outside the country did not expect Iran’s regime to honor the people’s vote. The Washington Post editorial board wrote with absolute certainty a few days before the election that Rouhani “will not be allowed to win.” Some mid-level reformist politicians who have left the country over the past four years even advocated against going to the polls — exemplifying just how much being away from Iran can impact your judgment. Pundits, excited by the Arab Spring, forecast that many would abstain from voting and that sooner or later Iran’s future would be decided on the streets.

Yet 72.7% of Iranians participated in this election. In Iran’s Kurdish regions, 60% of the population voted despite calls from Kurdish opposition parties to stay home.

How did such a victory happen? First and foremost, it was pressure from Iranian society that forced the opposition to participate in a game they could not even imagine winning. The 2013 election was a beautiful tango between popular and elitist politics. As the experience of the 2009 election showed, even Iran’s elites must be able to safely navigate their ship from the deep, undulating ocean of the people to the shallow, mine-filled port of the Iranian regime. According to Saeed Leylaz, a reformist economy expert, “ the regime exerted all the pressure it could so that we would throw the game.” Not only did groups critical of the Supreme Leader resist this pressure; for the first time they actually united. They also signaled that the king would not be checkmated if the game goes their way.

Some Recent History

Let’s begin with a cold Friday on March 2, 2012. Reformist Mohammad Khatami — Iran’s former president — travels to a small town 80 kilometers outside Tehran to quietly cast his vote in the 9th Majlis elections. At a time when the majority of Iran’s reformists had decided to ban the vote, Khatami’s participation made him the victim of harsh criticism and even bitter insults. But by voting he sent the message that despite his opposition, he would play inside the regime instead of voluntarily pulling out like a dissident and being at loggerheads with the whole system.

One year later, in March 2013, the reformist’s lower elites began mounting pressure on Khatami to run for president. But he cleverly refused, saying that “no matter the cost”, the regime would not allow him to run and such a move would only make the society more antagonized. Politics would also become more securitized by the regime, argued Khatami.

Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani — another former president who considers himself a centrist — was not so sure about the regime’s reaction to his own bid. At the last minute, he registered for candidacy.

The reformists welcomed his run. In the 10 days between his registration on May 11 to his disqualification by the Guardian Council on May 21, popular politics became reenergized. This concerned the regime. The experience of 2009 had shown that emotional build-up during the campaigning stage of an election could be more troublesome than the actual result. Rafsanjani was not surprised by his disqualification, but he did not expect it either; not every move by political actors is necessarily calculated.

But Rafsanjani remained true to his politically shrewd reputation. As Abbas Abdi, a renowned social analyst wrote, “Hashemi did not even change his tone and more interestingly he called for [the participation of people in the election to create] a political epic.”

Rafsanjani knew that objecting would only lead to his further marginalization in the political arena. By refusing to protest, he sent a message to Ayatollah Khamenei that he is not looking to radicalize public sentiments. The Supreme Leader received this message and in a public speech implicitly thanked Rafsanjani.

After Rafsanjani’s elimination, the reformists became more discouraged and confused. Two candidates close to them had passed through the Guardian Council’s filter but neither was ideal. Mohammadreza Aref , a vice president during Khatami’s term, was considered the most conservative in the reformist camp as he remained publicly silent during the post-election crackdowns in 2009. Rouhani — a former secretary of the Supreme National Security Council with close ties to Rafsanjani — was known as a centrist but had once condemned a February 14, 2011 Green Movement protest. Both these candidates had decided to run for the presidency without consensus from their political camps.

The Politics

From May 21 when Rafsanjani was disqualified until June 10 when Aref withdrew his bid, groups critical of the Supreme Leader experienced non-stop tension and doubt.

At the bottom, those who want change expected these groups to unite and use the opportunity afforded by the elections. At the top, three high-ranking figures from different political currents — reformist Khatami, centrist Rafsanjani and Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, a former Majlis Speaker who’s considered a moderate principlist — were of the same opinion. But in the middle, confused politicians and political groups were in chaos and competition.

Eshaq Jahangiri, Rafsanjani’s campaign manager, speaks of a meeting on May 28 with Rafsnajani in which he asks reformists and moderate principlists to cooperate and unite to “change the course of the election.” Otherwise, “the radicals could throw the country into crisis by isolating all rationale figures.” A day before, the Reformists Consultative Council also had a meeting at Khatami’s office. But during that meeting the opinion of the majority of the reformists persisted: don’t participate.

The reformists were quickly faced with a bottom-up pressure that the body of society was exerting on them. As Abdi put it, “the principle of participating in the election was imposed on them by the people.”

Different surveys conducted before the election showed that about 60 to 70 percent of Iranians would participate in the elections. Forty-six members of the Reformists Consultative Council residing in the capital city of Tehran were especially facing pressure from their lower cohorts in the townships demanding a coalition between the two candidates. Ultimately, the periphery forced the center to surrender — the reformists must participate in the elections and they must form a coalition.

There was disagreement about the decision-making process. Some mid-rank reformists in the capital wanted to decide on the coalition-candidate behind closed doors. But the decision to consult public opinion ultimately persevered. “Just as in participating or banning the election the collective intellect of the people and Reformists in townships was accepted we must also refer to them on this issue,” said Ahmad Masjed-Jamei, a member of the council.

Ahead of the alliance that propelled him to victory, surveys showed that Rouhani, the candidate who was not affiliated with any reformist group, was more popular. Some reformists questioned the validity of the opinion poll. The process, which was supposed to result in the unity of progressive groups, was headed towards nasty party politics filled with rivalry and competition between mid-level elites lusting after extracting rents and getting public office in the next administration.

While the result of the final coalition headed by Khatami and Rafsanjani was supposed to be announced by Khatami’s Consultative Council, a number of reformist parties announced early endorsement of Aref to present Khatami’s council with a fait accompli. With public opinion still polling in favor of Rouhani on June 8, to reign in the competing reformist groups, the Consultative Council delayed announcing its official endorsement until late Monday night (June 10). On Tuesday, with only two more days of official campaigning left before the polls opened, Khatami and Rafsanjani announced their endorsement of Rouhani.

Aref withdrew his bid with displeasure and refused to officially endorse Rouhani. But this is not important. Despite the disagreements and rivalries, the political groups in Iran managed to ultimately reach a final and determining decision.

Rouhani’s Message

It is wrong to consider Rouhani’s victory the result of the endorsement of political groups, particularly the reformists. This 65-year-old cleric has years of experience in difficult domestic and foreign policy arenas and conflict resolution. He also had a hand in persuading the public to vote for him.

Building a constituency for Rouhani was difficult in this election. As I have written before, the regime had learned from the 2009 election and wanted to keep the streets clear of campaign carnivals and antagonism. It was only in the two final official days of campaigning that a bit of election fervor was displayed, though only in some parts of north Tehran. In such a restricted atmosphere, where the public is not given an opportunity to discuss and engage in political deliberation, Rouhani had to rely on his rhetoric to gather votes.

Aristotle called rhetoric “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion.” Rouhani showed he is well capable of this. With his warm yet calm style of oratory stemming from the tradition of Shia-preaching, he reproduced almost everything that Mir-Hossein Mousavi — the 2009 candidate who is currently under house arrest — said and more.

Rouhani criticized the handling of the nuclear issue — “centrifuges can run [but only] if the country [can also be] run.” He stated he would end the securitized atmosphere [of the past four years], adding, “You who have brought this upon the country, the people don’t want you anymore.” He even promised to prepare the grounds so that “anyone who has fled the country for whatever reason can return.”

While stating the demands of the reformists in his election campaign, he also tried to give moderate principlists a place. A remark he made during one of the election debates became his representative anecdote for the public: “I am a jurist, I am not a colonel.”

At the same time, in one of his campaign videos, Rouhani quoted Hassan Firouzabadi — Commander of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces — who praised his “prudent yet ethical and friendly management” of the military during the 1980s Iran-Iraq war. He delivered his first campaign speech at Jamaran Husseiniyeh, a symbolic location used by Ayatollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic, to address the masses. But he also highlighted that for the past 24 years he has been Ayatollah Khamenei’s representative at the Supreme National Security Council.

The magic of elections in Iran is that candidates are forced to quickly upgrade and revise their vocabulary so that voters can identify their demands. But Rouhani touched upon what the people wanted while refraining from threatening the regime. His election symbol, a key — which according to his campaign aides was his own idea — meant just that. It signified to the public that closed doors would open to them while assuring the regime that he had no intention of breaking through locks.

This tactic enabled Rouhani to turn many principlist elites — whom he had dealt with for years — to support him and convince many others to remain silent instead of attacking him. In his trips to major Iranian cities like Ahvaz, Isfahan,and Rasht, the Friday Prayers leaders — who are the Supreme Leader’s representatives but can have different inclinations and opinions — met with him. High traffic websites like Alef and Khabaronline, which belong to the principlists, were silent on Rouhani and instead mainly criticized Saeed Jalili, the candidate who was most vocal about his allegiance to the Supreme Leader.

The regime’s hardliners tried their best to guide Rouhani towards radicalization; to find a pretext for repressing him. They arrested dozen of his young supporters and campaign staff. But instead of using this to boil over public emotions, Rouhani calmly began to negotiate their release.

In his campaign ads, Rouhani did not conceal the fact that for years, he was the man behind the curtain. Such a representation would have made voters run for the hills in the past two elections; Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won the 2005 election by implying that he would unveil secrets and out the regime’s backstage people. But this time the majority of the people voted for the man who gave them omid — hope that he would solve problems behind-the-curtain with tadbir — prudency.

In Persian culture, politics is likened to backgammon. Unlike chess, backgammon is a game of contingencies. The dice are thrown, but what’s important is that in every circumstance, the best and most suitable move is made to triumph over fortune. This is exactly what prudence means — it concerns the domain of probabilities.

Many have inquired about the conditions that created the possibility of such an unimaginable victory in Iran’s 2013 elections. Why didn’t the regime rig the vote? How were the ballots counted with such precision that Rouhani won with only 0.7% more than the 50% required for an outright victory when even minor tampering would force a second round? These are important questions. But it’s just as important that in the instant when there was a sudden opening, the prudent move was made by the pro-change groups. If they had decided not to play — that is, participate in the elections, form a coalition and at the same time calm the opponent — there would have been no victory. An unknown Quattrocento humanist once described prudence as a “faculty of judgment exemplary for civic life.” This election showed that civic life and politicking can not only function well in Iran; they also have a chance at succeeding.

— Photo Credit: Mehdi Ghasemi

Ali Reza Eshraghi

Ali Reza Eshraghi is the Iran Projects Director at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) and a teaching fellow in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He was a senior editor at several of Iran's reformist dailies. During his more than 15-year career in journalism, he has published hundreds of articles and op-ed pieces in various Persian, Arabic and English media including the New York Times, CNN and Al Jazeera. Eshraghi is an alumnus of the Duke-UNC Rotary Center for International Studies in Peace and Conflict Resolution. Formerly, he was a visiting scholar at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism and The Institute of International Studies (IIS). He was also a research fellow at the Religion, Politics and Globalization Program at UC Berkeley. Eshraghi studied Political Science and Islamic Studies at Imam Sadiq University in Tehran.


One Comment

  1. After reading this article, adding my two cents worth to how the victory was won by 0.7% and stands, has more to do with the changes that the Supreme Leader wants, considering perhaps a reigning in of the hard liners rule, that has contributed to the hardships of the population, especially for those not in the elite. One might also compare it to a “breath of fresh air”, to an overheated atmosphere in need of change.

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