“Last night I sat in traffic with my wife and daughters for three hours,” a Tehran office manager recounted, “and the car did not move one meter.” The day before, Iranians had chosen Hassan Rouhani as the Islamic Republic’s seventh president. “All the cars honked their horns, and people danced and celebrated next to us in the streets.” The last time the manager had beheld such a scene was in June of 2009. “Four years ago I was also in my car with my wife and daughters, and traffic did not move, and cars were honking. But that time security men on motorbikes rode through the street smashing windows with their batons.” The contentious events of 2009 not only ensured four more years for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the president’s office but were also heralded as signaling the death of reformist politics in Iran. Yet as another presidential election approached, the three-decade political improvisation called the Islamic Republic once again went off script.
” Yet since Iran has no formal parties, that designation can mean anything. The reformists are content, for now, with forcing their way back into Iranian politics. They have declared they were promised nothing in return for backing Rouhani. The right will not go gently, and after some minor reshuffling the conservatives will begin to ponder what power they can claw back. “
Just a week prior to Iran’s June 14 election, according to tracking polls, Rouhani was in the middle of a pack of six candidates. It looked possible that no one would gain a majority of ballots, meaning that a runoff was in store. Then a coalition of centrist and reformist politicians, including former presidents Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, announced their backing for Rouhani, an ex-national security adviser and chief nuclear negotiator campaigning with the slogan “hope and prudence.” Mohammad Reza Aref, a former vice president under Khatami, withdrew from the race to throw his support behind Rouhani as well. Rouhani rose to frontrunner in the polls by election day, with many voters still undecided.
As results trickled in hourly on June 15, the outcome became clear. Rouhani won 50.7 percent of the more than 36 million votes cast (a turnout of 72.7 percent). The second-place candidate, Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, garnered only 16.6 percent. The patterns make plain the scale of the victory. In 19 of Iran’s 31 provinces, Rouhani collected a higher percentage of votes than in Tehran. He won all the major provincial cities, including hometowns of rivals, and drew massive support from ethnic minorities. He took 81 percent of the vote in the small Kurdish county of Baneh on the Iraqi border and 86 percent in the Baluch county of Sarbaz adjacent to Pakistan. He had spoken of ethnic pluralism at his rallies, and people noticed. Meanwhile, though he was the sole cleric in the contest, Rouhani did relatively poorly — 38 percent of the vote — in the Shi‘i seminary city of Qom. If his victory marked a “return to clerical power,” as some American analysts tweeted, the theological center did not seem ecstatic about it.
That evening, city streets around the country transformed into carnivals where chants of support for Rouhani resonated with paeans to the 2009 presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, held under house arrest since 2011. The few police loafing in the squares simply moved traffic along as best they could. “Yes, they are just standing there,” a young man yelled into a mobile phone. “I swear it’s true — come out and see for yourself!” To prove that fortune favors the brave, three days later Iran’s national team beat South Korea to qualify for the 2014 World Cup. There was no trepidation about stepping outside then. The sportscasters encouraged it on live television.
Orbits and Epicycles
“Iranian society surprised itself,” sociologist and Khatami confidant Hamid Reza Jalaeipour told a Tehran University crowd a week after the balloting. “Mobilizational potential turned into an electoral uprising.” Jalaeipour added, “After this election, everyone was shocked. Even American analysts were left hat in hand.” Writing in a reformist newspaper, urban theorist Parviz Piran put it differently: “Iranian and non-Iranian experts alike do not know Iran well.”
One lot that should have been surprised — Washington’s court astrologers — feigned otherwise. Eight years of penning op-eds on the Persian peril precluded the suggestion that the Islamic Republic could pitch any direction but rightward. A zodiac of pundits determined that only one vote would count — that of Leader and Supreme Jurist Ali Khamenei. Most signs pointed to Saeed Jalili, the current nuclear negotiator, who was touted as Ahmadinejad 2.0, helming an “army of voters” that follows the directives of a fundamentalist camarilla without question. Jalili placed a humiliating third with 11.3 percent. The peddling of his inevitability in the West produced two unintended consequences. His supporters in Iran rested assured that they were on the road to victory, citing American newspaper articles to that effect. And a sizable stratum of Iranian society decided to vote because, as one man said in line at the polls, “I don’t care who wins, as long as it’s not Jalili!”
Western observers denied having this particular influence on the ballot but claimed a far more specious one: The election may have been free (if not fair), and the least conservative candidate may have won. But this outcome was an achievement of the sanctions imposed to punish Iran for its nuclear research program. The Leader had cried uncle, “allowing” the people to vote, but it was a ruse to mask the continued intransigence of the anti-Western power elite. Like the medieval stargazers who saw planets far off course in their orbits around the earth, the Iran mavens found it unwise to tell the king the news. Best to claim it a Ptolemaic epicycle.
Nonetheless, as his supporters know, Rouhani’s victory is indeed fragile. “All the election did,” a journalist muttered, “was to open up a tiny crack for us.” The United States could smooth the road ahead or roughen it. Either way, Iran’s election was a surprise. To understand it without recourse to casuistry, two questions are critical: What precipitated the collapse of right-wing solidarity and the separation from favored son Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? And how did reformist politicians and their centrist allies win with the odds stacked so highly against them?
Reeling in the Ahmadinejad Years
By the mid-1990s, the Iranian right knew it an image problem. The first generation of revolutionary conservatives, mockingly labeled as “traditional” by their antagonists, could see that much of the population was moving away from them. Even the name of their political association, the Combatant Clergy Society, sounded off-putting to a new generation of voters. All the old guard could do, ensconced in unelected bodies such as the Guardian Council, was drag their feet. As the political scientist Sadeq Zibakalam boasted in 1997, a stick could have run against the conservative candidate and won. Mohammad Khatami, the victor in that year’s presidential contest, presaged a new type of public figure in the Islamic Republic. He and his circles rebranded themselves, not as liberals, a taboo in Iran, but as reformists, a vague signifier.
Much is made of the role of a burgeoning “civil society” in the 1997 and 2001 elections of Khatami, but the uncomfortable fact is that similar forces helped lift Ahmadinejad to the presidency in 2005. The reformist victories unleashed new forms of political, cultural and social participation, as well as pent-up claims for redistribution and justice. For the liberals in Khatami’s camp, one solution was to absorb this pressure through the romantic promotion of NGOs and bottom-up involvement (a member of Parliament once insisted to me that the American health care system ran entirely on non-profits). Yet, as Dylan Riley shows in The Civic Foundations of Fascism in Europe, associational life does not remain within enlightened boundaries. When liberal elites are unable to control the state, and democratic forces continue to fragment, there is abundant room for right-wing movements to grow.
The myth of an indoctrinated “army of voters” emerged from the 2005 election, when state militias such as the Basij used their networks to deliver votes to Ahmadinejad in the first round. Yet the Basij alone cannot explain his rise, as they had only around 300,000 members at the time. Just as religious and secular liberals formed film and philosophy clubs in the 1990s, and started countless newspapers and journals, so conservative Iranians joined groups commemorating the 1980s Iran-Iraq war, as well as religious holiday guilds and Qur’an reading societies for women and men.
A new folk culture arose to share the cassettes and CDs of religious crooners. These efforts did not originate at state behest but were built into the latticework of everyday life. Ahmadinejad, meanwhile, tailored his message to address the ambient frustration over unfulfilled revolutionary promises. His aides cycled through token campaign names, from Pleasant Scent of Service to Developers to, finally, Principlists. Conservatives first deployed this neologism in the late 1990s to present a more enticing, forward-looking right-wing alternative to the equally ambiguous moniker of reformists. From Persian the word is better translated as “fundamentalists,” but journalists, aware of the connotation in the West, wisely invented a different rendition. With a record largely unknown, Ahmadinejad skillfully tapped into class ressentiment and brandished his anti-clerical credentials as an engineer, professor and urban manager. He was more Zelig than ideologue. The old right did not know what to make of him, but most eventually hitched their wagons to his plebiscitary star.
The splintered reformists ran no fewer than three candidates in the 2005 election in addition to the comeback attempt of former president Hashemi-Rafsanjani. When Ahmadinejad placed second after Rafsanjani in the first round, reformist candidates complained of fraud. Yet why had all of them remained in the race in the first place? The second-round trouncing of Rafsanjani a week later confirmed that reformists had played the game poorly, given that Ahmadinejad simply needed to borrow from their playbook to win. Mohammed Qouchani, a popular editor and columnist, admitted at the time that “some of Ahmadinejad’s criticisms against Hashemi were similar to those levied by the reformists against him five years ago. We could not justify in just three days why people should vote for the target of our past attacks.”
Old-guard conservatives thus took advantage of an upsurge in Iranian civil society to renew their political project. Ahmadinejad could presumably be discarded once he served his purpose. Yet the upstart thought otherwise, and decided to push for a revolution within the revolution, using the executive branch as a bureaucratic hammer. He gutted the cross-factional bodies that housed old politicos; presented left, neoliberal and conservative ideas as his own innovations; and replaced 10,000 or more state managers across the country. In their stead entered a second generation of post-revolutionary bureaucrats who would not easily relinquish their stations. The mid-2000s commodity boom allowed the government to pursue pro-cyclical policies of credit creation and spending binges. When inflation crept upward Ahmadinejad removed protectionist barriers to imports. Iranians enjoyed access to the global market like never before, and the reformists’ social base partook in the good times, even as they despised the plebeian president for his arriviste airs.
The reformists, as well as centrist figures around Rafsanjani, were put out to pasture. Yet even before 2009’s post-election street battles, prominent conservatives in the parliament tried to block Ahmadinejad’s ministerial takeovers and retooling of the state. The president ignored them and set up his own institutions to do an end run. He shelled out public-sector companies to overburdened pension funds, allowed bloat in state banks and directed government business through a new layer of military and civilian subcontractors.
These steps were perceived in the West as a militarization of the economy, one that fit the mold of a monolithic praetorian state that erstwhile Cold Warriors understood better than the ups and downs of the reformist period. Yet these analysts had it upside down: The rise of the right commodified the bureaucratic prestige acquired by second-generation revolutionaries, and they were encouraged to cash in. The right was hardly unified. If anything, the penetration of patronage provided material bases for the splintering of conservatives into cliques. The same holds true for the infamous Revolutionary Guards, one section of which quietly voted in 2013 for Rouhani.
The schisms deepened after the authoritarian interlude of window smashing to quell the pro-Mousavi Green Movement of 2009. Those post-election uprisings forced the right wing to smile for the cameras in a show of unity, but no consolidated junta emerged from the strife. All that came from the national trauma was an ideological straitjacket for a superstructure without any base. Even worse, the spectacle the country had become in the international media allowed for common cause between the US and European Union to go outside the United Nations and push through unilateral sanctions by 2010. Rather than coalesce in strategic defense, conservative figures began to fight over who was the most principlist, always accusing Ahmadinejad of straying from the path. Even for those citizens who felt that the 2009 protests had brought more chaos than clarity, the revived conservative brand had lost its sheen.
Western observers and Iran’s ruling elites both believed that after 2009 there was only one functioning side of the political spectrum remaining. As a result, conservative challengers just needed to wait out Ahmadinejad’s second term while continuing to sound the alarm on the president’s dreadful incompetence. A technocratic appeal to order and progress became the jingle among all comers. Mayor Qalibaf and his circle coined the phrase “jihadi management” for their campaign, and then spent several months trying to explain what it meant. Yet the conservatives unwittingly made the same mistake in 2013 that the reformists had made in 2005. Assuming that political winds would continue to fill their sails, they began to launch far too many boats.
With each diminishing right-wing fraction proclaiming itself the true diviner of the Leader’s wishes, the legend of Khamenei’s supreme powers ballooned. The supposition that state affairs are firmly in the grip of the man behind the curtain is an old chestnut for Iranians and non-Iranians alike. Used by more combative reformist intellectuals in the late 1990s to attack the Leader’s stature and the position itself, after 2009 this notion entered the realm of common sense. Yet during the third televised debate between the eight candidates on June 7, the topic being foreign policy, the curtain pulled back upon a cockfight. The conservative candidates, as well as Rouhani, took turns sparring with Saeed Jalili over nuclear enrichment and engagement with the West.
Rouhani defended his negotiations with EU powers, which brought temporary suspension of Iran’s nuclear program, as a significant barrier to US-led sanctions or war. Jalili upheld his “resistant” posture as paving the way for Iran to attain technological prowess. Both equally claimed the Leader’s full support. The wrangling over Iran’s negotiation strategy intensified when the Leader’s senior foreign policy adviser, former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati, jumped in to accuse Jalili — who was presumed to have simply followed dictates from above — of inflexibility. “Reading statements at the table is not negotiation,” Velayati declared. He bluntly continued: Asking for all Western sanctions to be removed in return for the halting of some enrichment activities was bad negotiation strategy. A more agreeable compromise could have been reached in a first step toward a resolution.
At least two thirds of the population reportedly watched the debate, not to mention an agog US and European diplomatic corps. If Khamenei genuinely possessed the powers ascribed to him, then this howler should not have spurted out. It contradicted the official line on the precise issue where presumptions of the Leader’s steady command were the strongest. The gist of the debate: Welcome to the Islamic Republic of Oz.
On the other side, reformist and centrist politicians engaged in arguably the savviest gamble in the Islamic Republic’s history. Contra Western soothsayers who quickly rebounded from their errors to claim ex post facto that Rouhani’s victory was certain, the 2013 election outcome relied on a combination of luck and Leninism. Given the liberals’ frail position in Iran, the risk they took was the only road open to them. In March 2012, Khatami cast a ballot during widely boycotted parliamentary elections — the first public vote after 2009’s election. Castigated for the act in the opposition and diaspora press, he knew that conservatives were looking for any excuse to place him alongside Mousavi as an outright traitor. He would be of little use under house arrest. Khatami’s decision foreshadowed that reformist politics could wield a newfound pragmatism in the face of right-wing truculence.
One of many structural advantages held by Iran’s conservatives is their control over candidate vetting exercised by the Guardian Council. Starting in the 1990s, the Council would disapprove the most popular reformist candidates for public office and allow a few minor celebrities to run. Former presidents, having served two terms before the present one, are allowed in the constitution to vie for the seat again. Rafsanjani did so in 2005 and lost. Someone likely informed Khatami that he had no chance to pass through the Guardians’ gates in 2013, yet he held back word of any decision in the spring to build up enthusiasm for a reformist candidacy.
Other reformist-linked politicians began to announce their runs with the expressed notion that if Khatami entered, they would withdraw. This tactic promised, in any case, a slew of possibly dangerous candidates for the Guardian Council to mull over. On the final day of registration, May 11, Khatami did not arrive. Instead, Rafsanjani appeared in the final hour and declared his intention to run for president. He had hardly decided in advance. Rafsanjani’s daughter told the press that he had made up his mind around noon. The shock entry of such a revolutionary heavyweight, one on the conservatives’ enemy list since 2009, gave the right wing pause.
The Guardian Council waited ten days to release its list of approved candidates. In the meantime, right-wing organs attempted to reopen wounds from the 1990s — the then-adversarial relationship between Rafsanjani and the reformists. Harping on the “character assassinations” and “hurled profanities” of that era, as one newspaper put it, they hoped to repeat the formula of 2005. Khatami’s reformists and Rafsanjani’s centrists would have none of it, and gave key interviews implying that the past discord was water under the bridge. Khatami and the reformists, stated an aide, would give Rafsanjani their “all-encompassing support.” With this closing of ranks, Rafsanjani aimed a challenge at the conservative project: Disqualifying him, a state elder, would remove any trappings of fairness remaining in the revolutionary order. The Guardian Council, citing Rafsanjani’s age, disqualified him nonetheless, announcing that only eight candidates were suitable to run. Hassan Khomeini, grandson of the 1979 revolution’s leader, said the act was “unbelievable.”
The entry of Rafsanjani created a wave of interest among depoliticized and cynical citizens, given that he stood for, at least, a return to perceived better days in the 1990s. His disqualification equally shattered the hopes of many. The two remaining candidates on the center-left — Rouhani and Aref — were unlikely to inspire the necessary electoral push to overcome conservative inertia. Many felt there was no point in voting. Even Khatami and some of his aides were reportedly close to advocating non-participation.
Rafsanjani then did something sly — he encouraged the nation to vote anyway. The law in Iran may be akin to a Kafka short story, but it is the law, and this maneuver placed the onus on conservatives as well as the state apparatus to adhere to legalities by counting every vote. The Leader expressed his gratitude that all laws were being followed. Rafsanjani’s professed obedience to the overall system eased conservatives’ misgivings. If their opponents were so cowed, then victory was assured.
The election would occur in less than four weeks, and a conservative candidate running toward the center could have comfortably won it. Yet over the next few days, according to members of Khatami’s advisory council, calls began to pour in from the provinces asking which candidate to vote for. Khatami could not go to mosque without people stopping him to inquire. Young activists, some hardened veterans of the 2009 election and its aftermath, appealed in person and online for a consensus candidate. It dawned upon the reformists that popular demand for electoral participation had not withered. But it needed to be galvanized and channeled. They quietly formed two committees, with representatives from Khatami, Rafsanjani and a few moderate conservative leaders on board.
Sometimes they met in private offices, other times in restaurants — a large event would have allowed conservatives to declare the affair seditious. One committee would arrange polling in nine large cities around the country to determine which of Rouhani or Aref did best outside of Tehran; the other would begin negotiations between the two candidates’ campaigns to ensure that one would back the other without dissenting complaints that could jeopardize turnout. Khatami and Rafsanjani would then champion the candidate most supported from below. As the internal polls revealed, their sponsorship made it likely that their candidate would be catapulted into the second round.
If dissent occurred, it did not reach anyone outside these circles. On the day of the third debate, the committees decided on Rouhani, and all agreed to move forward in unison. They secured Aref’s withdrawal three days later. In the 2005 and 2009 presidential elections, reformists had been unable to put forward a coalition candidate based on consensus and driven by measured popular sentiment. Fortunately, Rouhani distinguished himself in the debates as a genteel moderate with influence in the myriad ways of politicking in the Islamic Republic. Like many reformists, he had tempered his politics over the past two decades. Plus, unlike Aref, Rouhani had diplomatic experience with the West. For many, he took on the mantle of peace candidate.
Above and Below
Three days of electioneering ensued, with a final day of state-mandated campaign silence before the Friday election. At some point during the week, millions of people decided to vote, and to vote for Hassan Rouhani. “I had made up my mind not to vote,” said a young Tehran University student. “How could I, after our votes were taken away in 2009?” She then divulged that on Thursday all of her friends scrambled to find their national identity booklets in order to go to the polls the next morning.
By the time the conservatives realized what was happening, it was too late. There were four of them left (one withdrew), one lesser-known candidate and Rouhani. Why did they not consolidate in the days before the poll? As was later revealed in the press, they knew that each additional withdrawal of a conservative candidate, bar Jalili, would only deliver more ballots to Rouhani, given that their own supporters were voting largely on personality, not ideology. The splintering of the right had led them into a prisoner’s dilemma, the Leader included. Khamenei’s calls for conservative unity over the past four years came to naught. Fudging the ballot returns would tempt a repeat of 2009’s unrest in far less secure circumstances. Rouhani was eventually nudged over the 50 percent plus one line by a few hundred thousand votes.
In hindsight, the arrival and disqualification of Rafsanjani was a sort of Trojan horse, given that his man won the race. As a friend of mine half-joked, “Hashemi is the only Iranian politician who can be disqualified from running for office and still win!” But that never would have happened if not for the intervention of the popular Khatami, now celebrated as a clever tactician. In Rouhani’s biographical video, televised repeatedly over several days before the election, a younger Khatami briefly stood on a dais praising the diplomatic feats of the former nuclear negotiator. It was the first time Khatami’s face had appeared on state airwaves since 2009, when he had pushed Mir Hossein Mousavi into the public eye with a similar endorsement. People instantly made the connection that there was a chance for change.
After the election, a few chastened conservatives admitted that the past eight years ruined their prospects. Masoud Dehnamaki, a cultural icon of the new right, wrote that they had scored an “own goal.” Others were more melodramatic: Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, a far-right theologian, claimed the election was the equivalent of Karbala, the seventh-century slaying of Hussein, revered by Shi‘a as the third Imam, and his comrades. Rouhani will have to deal with a conservative parliament, and he pledged that his cabinet choices would be “bipartisan.”
Yet since Iran has no formal parties, that designation can mean anything. The reformists are content, for now, with forcing their way back into Iranian politics. They have declared they were promised nothing in return for backing Rouhani. The right will not go gently, and after some minor reshuffling the conservatives will begin to ponder what power they can claw back. The damage done by Ahmadinejad’s rampage, from the bureaucratic realm to the social and economic, is immense. If the Obama administration sticks with sanctions, then the moment may be squandered. Yet the “electoral uprising” reveals that a single ideological stream cannot permanently divert the course of Iran’s political system. The main reason lies not in the structure of the state but in the social forces that recurrently remake it from below.
Kevan Harris is a postdoctoral research associate at Princeton University.