New Iranian President Elected
The Iranian presidential election seems to have been implemented smoothly and the people have elected a moderate-reformist cleric named Hassan Rouhani. Use of the terms ‘moderate’ and ‘reformist’ can be confusing to us over here as a number of candidates have either changed camps since the early post-revolutionary period, or are not a perfect fit in any category. Rouhani was early on referred to as a ‘moderate,’ which would reflect his insider status among the clerics who form the infrastructure of the Islamic state. However, since he won the election he has clearly been identified as a Reformist candidate who had the backing of other Reformists not running. And, it must be noted that Mohammed Khatami, Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, and Mehdi Karrubi are also long-time insiders within the power elite of the Islamic State.
There was some tension among Reformists in Iran and Iranians in the United States who supported reformist candidates Mousavi and Karrubi during the last Iranian election. On the very last day of the vetting process, two controversial candidates put their names forward. The powerful ex-president and former head of the Expediency Council, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, former vice president, applied on the last day. Both candidates were rejected by the Guardian Council. Mashaei is a bright and interesting fellow, but he has had some serious run-ins with Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Rafsanjani lost some of his power base within the centers of power during the last election when he advocated for the Reformist candidates and attempted to mitigate the harsh government reaction to protesters in the streets.
Rafsanjani, a founder of the Islamic Revolution and Ayatollah Khomeini’s right-hand man for many years, and Mashaei, a friend and protege of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, an outspoken self-made man, have little in common except that both are currently in the doghouse for bucking the system. Though it is interesting that they were both rejected, it isn’t alarming. They must have seen the risk because both presented their applications on the very last day of the process, and were rejected the very next day leaving little time for trouble to brew. Although the decisions were greeted with dismay here and there, the election proceeded in a manner that was overall quite satisfactory, and especially so for those who have been hoping for reform.
The eight candidates who were affirmed actually covered a wide spectrum of Iranian political interests. There were a few well known conservatives who got a lot of attention in the Western press, and also a few moderates who might be called reformists by some, and indeed were called reformists by the time the election was ready to proceed. Two the three moderate/reformist candidates dropped out shortly before the election, Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, a philosopher and politician whose daughter is married to the Supreme Leader Khamenei’s son (I am curious to know how he qualifies as a reformist), and Mohammed-Reza Aref, a close associate of and vice president under Mohammad Khatami. This left Hassan Rouhani, a cleric and member of pretty much every high council and advisory council in Iran (and who was Nuclear Negotiator under President Khatami), the only moderate-cum-reformist running against several strong conservative candidates.
As in U.S. politics, the field is not entirely open. It is nearly impossible for a third party candidate to successfully compete in federal elections in the United States due to rules that require them to gain large numbers of voter signatures in every state and acquire a large treasure chest of funds early in the game. In our last election, the Republicans had numerous contenders in the race up to the end of the selection process (we call it ‘primaries’). The Democrats, on the other hand, quit or were knocked out of the game early on creating a primary with only two candidates to chose from, Clinton and Obama. The end result was a presidential election with only two viable candidates. You may think this is a natural process, but in fact there were a number of factors in play, money being the most influential. In fact, the money candidates have at their disposal comes mostly from large corporations. This means that our candidates are preselected in large degree, not by the people, but by the corporations who are the big stakeholders in the elections and the main beneficiaries of current U.S. government policy.
So, in Iran, there is a power structure that forms a backbone to the election process and defines the field of candidates who can run. In the United States there is a power structure that forms a backbone to the election process and defines the field of candidates who can run. I read somewhere a complaint that it was somehow undemocratic that an initial field of 500 or 600 candidates in Iran was reduced to eight. Imagine that! We could never claim an initial field of 500-600 candidates. And, none of the final group were women. Of late, female vice presidents (cabinet members) have been pretty common in Iran, as they are here. When is the last time a woman was a presidential candidate in the final election field in the United States? What about Jill Stein? Yes, what about her? She was arrested outside one of the debates protesting the fact that she was not allowed to participate. How’s that for democracy.
Unlike Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Esfiander Mashaei and Mohammed Ghalibaf, Rouhani is an experienced professional who has been an insider in the Iranian government at many levels over most of the duration of the Islamic Republic. He has played supporting roles in both Rafsanjani and Khatami’s presidencies and various positions on the governing Councils that both select an support the Supreme Leader. Apparently there was concern early in the process that Rouhani would be disqualified from the race due to his promise to intervene on behalf of the imprisoned Green Movement leaders and moderate Iran’s foreign policy. However, he campaigned on a broad platform of civil and economic reform, on job creation, but also on building more open diplomatic relationships.
As a former Nuclear Negotiator for Iran, Rouhani understands the importance of Iran’s peaceful nuclear fuel generation program. However, he has said with regards to policy under the sanctions:
“when a centrifuge is supposed to keep spinning while the entire country remains stagnant, meaning that we launch the single Natanz nuclear facility, but hundreds of our factories face problems, stop operating or work at a 20-percent capacity due to a lack of parts, raw materials and sanctions… that we do not approve of.” [Rouhani’s Biopic Surprises Iranian Voters]
I think the issue of dialog will come back around to whether the U.S. and allies can be open to a change in relationship with Iran. On the other hand, Rouhani talked about stabilizing Iran’s stressed economy and creating jobs for young people. If he can do this, it may offset, to a degree, the harm done by U.S. led global sanctions. Given his place in the hierarchy, I would not expect Hassan Rouhani to assert any substantial change in Iran’s positions on critical issues like Iran’s allies, Iran’s nuclear program or the basic framework of the state. However, he may be able to use his connections and deep roots in the establishment to ease some of the negative pressures on civil society in Iran and open a more functional dialog, not only with the West, but with other potential partners.
In any case, we shouldn’t forget that one of the factors that brought Ahmadinejad to power after Khatami was the fact that despite Khatami’s popular efforts to liberalize certain aspects of society and open up the domestic dialog, he did not improve conditions for the poor and working class in Iran. Khatami’s foreign policy suffered as well from the hostile stance of both the Clinton and Bush administrations which categorically rejected the diplomatic opening he offered. In fact, despite a very deliberate effort on the behalf of President Khatami to establish diplomatic relations and begin a dialog with the U.S., George Bush targeted Iran as a member of his infamous Axis of Evil before the outspoken and easily demonized Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power.
U.S. politicians could take a lesson from the current flow of events. After years of calling Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a dictator and a fascist, he is populist but an outsider from the standpoint of the Iranian political elite, who will leave office and be replaced by a true insider. Ahmadinejad was unable to provide a stable platform of support for his protege Esfandiar Mashaei, who was rejected by the establishment. Mashaei does not fall neatly into either conservative or reformist mold, though he has a conservative religious stance, he is interested in social reforms and a more open international dialog. In fact, Mashaei was an enthusiastic sponsor of Iran’s programs for Fellowship of Reconciliation civilian diplomacy delegations during the period he held a position in the Ahmadinejad administration. Neither really held a place on the conservative/reformist axis, which is a feature of the clerical elite who founded the Islamic State and who apparently continue to have the last word behind the scenes.
It is time to leave behind the histrionic language and hyperbole and become open the reality that the rest of the world is composed of people not so different from ourselves. Given the recent bills passed by the U.S. Congress, increasing the severity of economic sanctions and swearing eternal fealty to Israel’s political requirements, it is difficult to have confidence. Given the history, not only of U.S. relations with Iran, but the history of U.S. territorial policies going back 150 years to the diplomatic kabuki that thinly veiled the genocidal appropriation of an entire continent from another people, it is difficult to have confidence. And yet, it is clear that Iranians are moving forward and seriously working with their democracy, imperfect though it may be, to improve their society and their lives. Let us hope that we can do the same.
[Photo: Mojtaba Salimi via Wikimedia Commons]