Megan Fantoni is an intern at Partnership for a Secure America. She is a graduate of Tufts University where she received a Bachelor’s Degree in International Relations and History.
The Path to a Surprising Victor in the Iranian Presidential Election
The Iranian election of Hassan Rouhani catalyzed an international discussion on the implications of the moderate candidate’s victory. As the only moderate candidate on the ticket, Hassan Rouhani’s decisive 51% victory in a six-way presidential race demanded the attention of the international community and highlighted unrest within the Iranian population. More jarring than the fact that Rouhani received the most votes in the election is the fact that the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamanei, appears ready to allow the moderate party to officially take hold of the presidency. Only four years ago Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was re-elected amidst widespread violence at the poll, vote miscounts, and a generally corrupt presidential election.
Various factors attributed to this surprising result. First, the Principlist Party was unable to unite and rally behind one leader. In the last stages of the campaign, the other moderate candidates dropped out of the race and publicly supported Rouhani. On the other hand, on election day, there were five separate conservative candidates. With the conservative vote split five ways, it would be very hard for one conservative candidate to gain a majority vote. It would have been possible for Khamanei to alter the election results to secure a conservative victory if there was one Principlist candidate, rather than a compilation of five separate conservative candidates. As we look at the results, it is impressive to see that Rouhani received over half of the country’s vote; however, it is also evident that almost half (49%) of the country still strongly agrees with the conservative ideology and may affect any shifts in future policy.
Some scholars go as far as to say that Rouhani’s victory can largely be attributed to the anti-conservative feelings towards the Iranian government and current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The people of Iran have suffered under the economic strain of international sanctions imposed on Iran because of its nuclear program. In a recent panel, Karim Sadjadpour from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace stated that the election “was a reflection of profound discontent with the status quo, rather than a deep-seated affinity for the candidate himself.” Rouhani’s campaign platform included rhetoric such as ending an “era or extremism” and “hope and prudence” – language in stark contrast to that of the conservatives. The late rush of support from the voters of Iran derives from frustration over the current government and countrywide economic and social hardship.
Another factor contributing to Rouhani’s victory was the televised four-hour-long presidential debate on May 31st. Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institute stated in her testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the presidential debate was one of the most important factors in the election because it included anti-isolationist rhetoric that appealed to the Iranian people who desperately want change in their country. Challenging the official narrative of the Islamic Republic, the debate fueled citizens to vote moderate in the hopes of improving their country’s economic stance and international presence.
As important as Rouhani’s victory was, U.S. policymakers and scholars alike have advised caution towards this new leader. Members of Congress and scholars from Brookings Institute, Council on Foreign Relations, and the Carnegie Endowment in a recent panel have all made the same point: Rouhani is only a moderate leader when viewed in the context of current politics in Iran. To enter into the presidential race, Rouhani was approved by the Supreme Leader and, in effect, the conservative faction. Mr. Sadjadpour describes Rouhani’s politics in maintaining the ideals of the Islamic Republic by “moderating its style more than substance.”
Moving forward from Rouhani’s surprise election, critics are re-examining Western policy towards Iran and how this might shift with the new president. Almost universally, experts are stating that U.S. and international sanctions have been successful in adding pressure on the government of Iran. Acknowledging the relative success of the sanctions imposed on Iran, many in Washington have urged for deepening and broadening sanctions against the Iranian nuclear program. In addition to urging continual pressure, Ray Tekeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations warns that Rouhani will be a tougher adversary because he is a skilled negotiator, and his seemingly more reasonable requests may cause fractions in the international coalition opposed to the nuclear program.
Although there remain many questions about what kind of leader Rouhani will be and how his policies will change Iran’s relations with the rest of the world, his election reflects the widespread disapproval of the Supreme Leader and the conservative party by the Iranian people. Rouhani steps into his presidency in August with a small mandate calling for a shift in policy and for an improvement in economic and social climate in the country. Still, one must wonder if the Supreme Leader will permit a genuine deviation from his hard-line position on the nuclear program and relations with the rest of the world. With Rouhani’s election, this may be an opportune time to test how much moderation and flexibility on the nuclear question he brings to his office.