Did Rowhani’s support in Iran outperform the potential of a Rafsanjani candidacy?


Hassan Rowhani’s runaway first-round victory in Iran’s June 14 presidential election was unexpected after many U.S. commentators had disregarded Rowhani’s chances when Iran’s Guardian Council refused to permit former president Hashemi Rafsanjani to run.Iran Flag Icon

Before the Guardian Council’s decision, Rafsanjani was thought to have been the stronger candidate for Iran’s presidency, though by no means did anyone suggest Rafsanjani would be a shoo-in for victory.

It may well ironically turn out that Rowhani — and not Rafsanjani — proved to be the stronger candidate all along.

Rowhani, moreover, ultimately won election with the backing of the same coalition that Rafsanjani was expected to mobilize — moderates like Rowhani himself, more liberal reformists and followers of former president Mohammed Khatami, the ‘Green movement’ supporters who backed Mir-Hossein Mousavi, unsuccessfully, in the 2009 presidential race, and other who have become disenchanted with the outgoing president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, over Iran’s stumbling economy, stringent international sanctions over Iran’s nuclear energy program, and political freedoms.

Of course, we’ll never know whether Rafsanjani (pictured above, right, with Rowhani) would have been able to attract even more than the 18.6 million votes that Rowhani won in the election.

But it seems likely that Rowhani could have actually overperformed a hypothetical Rafsanjani candidacy (assuming that Rowhani would have dropped out of the race in deference to Rafsanjani).

In many ways, the Rowhani campaign offered all of the benefits of a Rafsanjani candidacy without any of the drawbacks.

Rowhani has been a strong Rafsanjani ally since the 1980s and the earliest days of the Islamic Republic, when Iran was locked in a fierce, decade-long border war with Iraq.  When Rafsanjani became Iran’s president in 1989, he appointed Rowhani as the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, putting Rowhani at the head of Iran’s regional security as the Iraq war wound down.  Khatami, upon assuming the presidency in 1997, retained Rowhani in that role, and he appointed Rowhani as the country’s first negotiator over Iran’s nuclear energy program in 2003, a position that Rowhani relinquished when the more hardline Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005.

As such, Rowhani’s victory is seen as somewhat of a victory for Rafsanjani, who is expected to return to influence as a guiding role in Rowhani’s administration:

“Rafsanjani was really the only choice to re-energize reformists,” said Rasool Nafisi, an Iranian affairs analyst at Strayer University in Virginia. “Rowhani only got their support because he is seen as Rafsanjani’s man and a vote for Rowhani was a vote for Rafsanjani.”

This deep connection between the two men could give a potential Rowhani presidency a dual nature: Rowhani as the public face and Rafsanjani behind the scenes as its powerful godfather and protector.

Although all key policies such the nuclear programme are directed by the ruling clerics, the alliance with Rafsanjani may give Rowhani more latitude to put his stamp on Iran’s negotiation tactics with world powers after four rounds of talks since last year have failed to make any significant headway.

But three weeks ago, it was not entirely clear which of Iran’s eight approved presidential candidates would emerge as the clearest voice of change — the runner-up in the presidential vote, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, came to the race as both a conservative ‘principlist,’ but also as a strident Ahmadinejad critic with a substantial base of support as Tehran’s mayor since 2005, a role in which Qalibaf has been viewed as a relatively effective executive by boosting Tehran’s green spaces, public transport and benefits for its poorest residents. Continue reading Did Rowhani’s support in Iran outperform the potential of a Rafsanjani candidacy?

Costos nomination to Madrid shows why the U.S. system of appointing top ambassadors is flawed


Late last Friday afternoon, U.S. president Barack Obama announced six new ambassadors to a wide list of countries — Spain, Denmark, the Vatican, Brazil, Ethiopia and Germany.USflagSpain_Flag_Icon

Of the six new ambassadors, however, only two are career diplomats.  The new ambassador to Spain is James Costos (pictured above), an HBO executive and a top donor whose partner happens to be Michael Smith, who has served as the interior decorator of the White House.  The high-profile gay couple raised millions of dollars for Obama’s reelection.  That Costos and Rufus Gifford, Obama’s 2012 fundraising chairman and nominee for the Danish post, are both openly gay highlights the wide progress of LGBT equality since the troubled 1999 nomination of James Hormel as the U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg.

As Joshua Green and Hans Nicholas explained in December 2012 in BusinessWeek after Obama’s reelection, around 31% of the U.S. ambassadorships are currently held by political donors rather than by career diplomats.  Though the arrangement gives an opportunity for a president to reward his donors, there’s a bona fide economic reason for appointing wealthy supporters to some of the world’s most poshest embassies — the costs run much higher than the U.S. government provides to conduct the wide array of social and diplomatic events that are expected:

The funds embassies receive from the U.S. Department of State don’t begin to cover the high costs of the frequent parties and dinners ambassadors are expected to host. Some wind up paying more than $1 million a year out of their own pockets, according to one of the president’s top donors who requested anonymity because he didn’t want to discuss private conversations.

But does that necessarily make sense?

The bipartisan tradition of appointing top donors as ambassadors is relatively novel, going back to the administration of U.S. president Ronald Reagan around three decades ago.  In the days leading up to Obama’s inauguration, The New York Times even published a sort-of guide to the etiquette of making the transformation from donor to ambassador:

Interviews with more than a dozen donors, Democratic officials and advisers involved in the discussions revealed some unspoken rules: Volunteer for more than one country. Be prepared to serve for only two years, so that a second round of envoys can be appointed before Mr. Obama leaves office. Don’t mention how much money you raised for the campaign (but don’t expect much if you didn’t raise at least a million dollars). Let it be known where you want to go, but don’t publicly campaign for the job.

Appointing donors instead of professional diplomats comes at a cost — diplomats have spent decades learning their craft, whereas political appointees may not always understand the nuances of ambassadorial life.  Seattle philanthropist Cynthia Stroum learned that the hard way when, in 2011, she resigned as the U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg after a U.S. state department report found Stroum to have had a negative and confrontation management style and, possibly, that Stroum may have misspent U.S. funds for personal use while ambassador.

Luxembourg, in the grand scheme of things, is a minor country vis-a-vis the United States, but how long before another Cynthia Stroum is appointed as a political donor to a G20 country?

Costos is an HBO executive in charge of global licensing and retail, and he’s certainly proven himself as a successful businessman.  CNN reports that he gave over $67,000 in total last year to boost Obama’s reelection and the Democratic Party, he’s a previous donor to former New York senator and secretary of state Hillary Clinton and former Vermont governor Howard Dean, and he has also given to Newark mayor Cory Booker, who is running to become New Jersey senator.  The White House announcement states that he’s also a former vice president for Hermes in New York and he serves on the Board of Directors of The Humane Society.

That may, as the tireless pro-LGBT group Human Rights Campaign noted Friday in a statement, make Costos a ‘true citizen of the world,’ but does it makes Costos the most qualified candidate to represent the United States in Spain?

It’s not clear if Costos even speaks Spanish.

Moreover, Costos’s appointment on Friday was covered more by Hollywood media than by the political media in the United States, and he’s expected to take a forceful line with the Spanish government on piracy, not an unexpected view from a Hollywood executive.  His appointment is viewed as a reward not only to Costos individually, and also to Obama’s Hollywood donors and to the LGBT community as well, but those are not necessarily incredibly strong qualifications for U.S.-Spanish relations.

While bilateral relations with Spain aren’t as tricky as, say, relations with China, they’re still important. Spain, a country with nearly 50 million citizens, has the world’s 13th largest economy, and is the fifth-largest economy in Europe.  Its unemployment rate is 26.7%, and the economy is, by far, in the worst shape at any time since the end of the Francoist dictatorship in the 1970s.  As if that weren’t enough, the next ambassador to Spain will bear witness to what will likely be an fraught battle over regional autonomy and Catalan independence.

Costos has already stepped into one difficult issue — as a Humane Society activist, he has taken a dim view of bullfighting, a controversial issue in Spain in recent years, with animal rights activists and other alleging the sport’s cruelty.  But a move by the nationalist regional government of Catalonia to ban bullfighting in 2011 means that the issue is loaded with broader tensions over the growing rift between Spain’s central government in Madrid and regional Catalan leaders, who have pushed for greater autonomy or even independence.  Indeed, Catalan regional president Artur Mas seems likely to proceed with a controversial plan to schedule a referendum in 2014 for Catalan independence, despite the disapproval of prime minister Mariano Rajoy.  Costos’s anti-bullfighting views already inadvertently puts him firmly on one side of what’s likely to be the trickiest political battle he’ll face while in Madrid.  Continue reading Costos nomination to Madrid shows why the U.S. system of appointing top ambassadors is flawed