Moderate cleric Rowhani wins stunning first-round victory in Iran presidential election

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Hassan Rowhani, the moderate cleric and former Iranian nuclear negotiator, has won a first-round victory in Iran’s presidential election, a stunning development that, despite evidence of Rowhani’s surge, no one predicted even 24 hours ago.Iran Flag Icon

The victory was so stunning over a divided field of more conservative ‘principlist’ candidates that it calls into question the strategy of leading principlists to have remained in the race so long, thereby dividing conservative support and prohibiting the emergence of a single principlist standard-bearer.

With all of the votes counted, Iran’s ministry of the interior reports a turnout of just over 72% in the race, and Rowhani’s 50.71% support is sufficient to avoid a runoff with Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf on June 21:

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It’s no surprise that Qalibaf finished in second place, given the fact that he has a strong base of supporters in Tehran, where he’s served as mayor since 2005 and has been twice elected by the city council, and that he’s long been a critic of the administration of outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

 

The two candidates most associated with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei — current nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili and longtime former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati — did even worse, despite reports that proclaimed Jalili a ‘frontrunner’ in the campaign.  Jalili, with just over 11% of the vote, only narrowly outpaced third-time candidate Mohsen Rezai, the former head of the Revolutionary Guards who’s popular with rural Iranian voters.  Velayati finished far behind in fifth place with just 6.18% of the vote.

Meanwhile, Rowhani has consolidated the support of three main groups in Iran: reformists, moderate conservatives, and voters disillusioned with the outgoing Ahmadinejad’s failures on economic growth and international relations. 

The withdrawal, just five days ago, of former vice president Mohammad Reza Aref, the most reformist candidate approved to run in Friday’s election by the Guardian Council, allowed for the consolidation of support from both moderates within the Iranian elite, as personified by former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, and liberals within the Iranian elite, such as former president Mohammed Khatami.  Though Rowhani has been a very close ally of Rafsanjani’s since the 1980s, Aref served as Khatami’s communications minister and vice president, so Aref’s withdrawal allowed a broad coalition to form that seemed pre-destined from the earliest days of the campaign.

Aref’s withdrawal (and the speculation leading up to it) allowed a broader coalition of reformist and moderate voters, including many of the ‘Green movement’ supporters from the 2009 election, to coalesce early around Rowhani as the best candidate among the eight approved by the Guardian Council.  Although the losing 2009 presidential candidate, former Iranian prime minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi, remains under house arrest and did not publicly comment on the election, the decision by leading reformists to support Rowhani rather than to boycott the election was a critical factor in Rowhani’s success.

But what powered Rowhani to such a strong victory was his ability to become the choice of voters across Iran who desire a change from the Ahmadinejad administration’s approach to both domestic and foreign policy.  Throughout the debates, Jalili served as a useful foil for Rowhani — as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005, Rowhani pursued a more conciliatory approach than Jalili, who has served as Iran’s nuclear negotiator since 2007, and the stark contrast defined the two poles of competing approaches to negotiations.  By offering an opportunity for Iran to reset negotiations with the P5+1 group over its nuclear energy program, Rowhani demonstrated that he served the best chance of having the increasingly robust U.S., European and international sanctions against Iran lifted — and that’s a crucial component to getting Iran’s economy back on track.

As the sole cleric in the race, he also commanded some amount of religious credibility as well in a country whose past presidents (Khamenei, Rafsanjani and Khatami) have all been clerics with the sole exception of Ahmadinejad.  Rowhani, therefore, follows in a long tradition of cleric-presidents.

So what of Rowhani himself?

LIke Rafsanjani and the 2009 standard-bearer Mousavi, Rowhani is a longtime player in Iranian politics — at age 64, he’s eight years older than Ahmadinejad.

He’s currently a member of the 86-member Assembly of Experts that oversees the Supreme Leader (and that would elect a new one in the event of Khamenei’s death or resignation).  He was chief deputy of Rafsanjani when Rafsanjani led Iran’s parliament, the Islamic Consultative Assembly (Majles), in the 1980s.  Upon Rafsanjani’s elevation to the Iranian presidency in 1989, Rowhani was appointed secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, a position he held until the end of Khatami’s presidency in 2005.  Rowhani also served as deputy speaker of the Majles from 1992 to 2000.

As Iran’s negotiator with the international community from 2003 to 2005, Rowhani engineered a deal whereby Iran suspended its uranium enrichment for nearly two years, though enrichment resumed upon Ahmadinejad’s election.  A fluent speaker of English and Arabic as well as his native Farsi, Rowhani earned a Ph.D. from Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland.  Throughout the campaign, he has called for better ties with the United States and with the West and, while the Iranian president ultimately has less power than the Supreme Leader under Iran’s governmental system, Rowhani’s tone has the potential to reset relations that have become perilously fraught in recent years.

He’s certainly no radical, so expect him to push for change within the constraints and limitations of the existing structure of the Islamic Republic, which means that he’ll look for ways to work with Khamenei, who may welcome a change in tone internationally and who most certainly knows that his own position as Supreme Leader will be strengthened if Rowhani succeeds in turning Iran’s economy around.

Relatively early in the campaign — well before the Guardian Council made its decision to approve Rowhani’s candidacy — Rowhani called for releasing Mousavi and other top leaders of the Green movement from house arrest and/or from prison.  Rowhani’s election gives Khamenei an excuse to do so as an opportunity to return to the relatively more relaxed era of political freedom under the Khatami administration.  So look to the status Mousavi’s house arrest as an indicator of the Rowhani administration’s early success.

Even more stunning is that the traditional ‘principlists’ in the race — Qalibaf, Jalili and Velayati — together won an anemic 34.08% of the vote.  In the days leading up to the June 14 vote, it seemed very likely that the fluid race would ultimately result in a runoff between Rowhani and another principlist (most likely Qalibaf).  But in hindsight, it looks incredibly naive for all three principlists to have stayed in the race, because none of them ever really had a chance to consolidate the support of conservatives.  That was always going to be a tall order, given the divisions between pro-Khamenei and pro-Ahmadinejad conservatives, and given the level of unpopularity of the outgoing Ahmadinejad government, despite the fact that both Qalibaf and Velayati were relatively critical of Ahmadinejad’s regime during the campaign.

As Susan Mahoney at the Brookings Institution wrote this morning, however, Khamenei and his principlist supporters may well be relieved at the fact that Rowhani has won in the first round.  If Rowhani charged to an even wider margin of victory over Qalibaf in a runoff after yet another week of growing enthusiasm and electioneering, Rowhani might have been able to claim the kind of mandate that Khatami won in his 1997 landslide (69.6%) or that Ahmadinejad won in 2005 against Rafsanjani (61.7%).

Nonetheless, an absolute majority in a race that included six candidates, including a popular Tehran mayor and a high-profile envoy is impressive enough, and it’s clear that Rowhani will come to Iran’s presidency from a position of relative strength.

Photo credit to Mohammed Berno.

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