Behind the Scenes of Hassan Rouhani's Victory: Expect a Politician not a Puppet!

On August 3rd, Hassan Rouhani, a centrist pragmatic politician will officially step into the role of the Iranian President. His election could mean significant social and economic changes for the Iranian people. Furthermore, after three and a half decades of frustration, it could end the deadlock in building a relationship between Iran and the United States.

However, besides occasional coverage of related events, the US news media has treated the results of this election as something of a surprise/fluke and not given it any in-depth attention. The disregard is rooted mostly in the assumption that, while the Supreme Leader is in place, Iranian general elections do no mean much. In this article, I propose that Rouhani's very election to office was made possible through intricate political maneuvers on the part of reformists and centrists which required strategic planning and organization. Rouhani's election indicates a desire on the part of the Iranians to correct the course of the current regime rather than opt for outright revolution. Nonetheless, the desired changes are substantial and the Iranian political scene is getting too complex for the Supreme Leader to stop these changes from taking place.

Over the past four years, the Iranian civic space has been militarized, ethnic groups pressured, NGOs dismissed, and official attitudes toward the west turned outright hostile. The election package defined as "the politics of resistance," put forth by the Supreme Leader's supporters, proposed that Iranians should suffer and resist whether dealing with censorship, ethnic discrimination or economic hardship because the big bad foreign enemy is waiting to get them if they show any signs of lack of resolve. Rouhani suggested that all the above could and should change. The hardliners attacked, he held on to his positions and won the election. How is that possible? To answer this, I will look at Rouhani and his achievements, the process of his candidacy, his campaign and the role of centrist and reformist leaders in it. I believe examining the behind the scenes process, not reflected in the US media discussions, will give a clear indication of the complexity of the current Iranian political milieu. It will further suggest that Hassan Rouhani should not be treated as devoid of political agency domestically and on the world scene.

Rouhani was born to a traditional family. His father run a spice store in the small town of Sorkheh with a population of about 10,000 located some 200 miles east of Tehran. He married at the young age of 20 and went through a traditional seminary education. Nine years later, he entered Tehran University and did his bachelor's degree in judicial law. Rouhani continued his studies at Glasgow Caledonian University with a PhD in law and a thesis titled "The Flexibility of the Sharia (Islamic Law) with reference to the Iranian experience." He has a reputation as a polyglot with languages such as French and Russian in addition to English and Persian.

Rouhani has been holding positions of consequence in the Iranian government since the 1979 revolution. He has served as a member of the parliament, Secretary to the Supreme National Security Council, and a member of the Assembly of Experts, among others. He was actively involved in the Iran-Iraq war efforts which worked in his favor during the election campaign. Iranians' emotions still run high about the war in which Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons with western support (1980-88). On the less positive side, in his role as secretary of Supreme National Security Council, Rouhani played a central role in putting down the student uprisings of 1999. This is a dark spot on Rouhani's career, though there is disagreement regarding the degree of his involvement. The truth is no one holding political office at the time, not even President Mohamad Khatami, could be cleared of responsibility for what the students endured.

The Iranian voters were more forgiving. They responded to Rouhani's plea for return to a calm and normal society and mostly focused on his leading role in the nuclear negotiations which prevented the IAEA from reporting Iran's case to the United Nations Security Council in the early 2000s, and earned him the title of "the Diplomat Sheikh." This title came handy with an electorate tired of cowboy diplomacy displayed by Ahmadinejad. At last, there could be a respectable diplomat, instead of a loose cannon, in the office of the Iranian president. There is yet another side to the Iranian President Elect's personality: Rouhani the scholar. This facet of Rouhani's carrier may not explain his success in smaller towns and villages, which gave him a percentage of their votes higher than those in large towns. But, generally, the Iranian electorate cares about the candidates intellectual achievements. Addressing one of his main opponents Mohamad Bagher Ghalibaf, an ex-Basij officer, Rouhani said in one debate "I am not a military man Mr. Ghalibaf. I am a scholar of law." That assertion made headline. Indeed, he is primarily a scholar of law carrying the rank of a research professor at Iran's Center for Strategic Research since 1990s and heading the Institute since 1992. His books and articles are in Persian, English and Arabic. A second area of concentration for him has been Islamic political thought while he has also ventured into topics closely relevant to his current position including National Security and Diplomacy (2011), National Security and Foreign Policy and National Security and Environment both published in Persian in 2013.

Rouhani dresses neatly, smiles often, and listens carefully when addressed. He has an impressive memory for details, does not get intimidated or hassled into hasty reactions, and articulates his ideas clearly. Tired of eight years of Ahmadinejad's sarcastic tone, flippant answers, and frequent accusations of his opponents, the Iranian voters responded enthusiastically to the contrast they noticed in Rouhani's manners. After his first press conference as the President Elect on June 20th, the initial comments in the country were focused on how finally Iran had a president who acted like one.

Important as Rouhani's background and manners are, what contributed to his victory was largely the result of a complex and well devised set of joint plans on the part of reformists and moderates which succeeded in attracting to their camps the moderate among the so called principalists Osulgaraayaan. The presence of well-known high-ranking Principalist politicians such as Nateq Nuri (ex-speaker of parliament and minister of interior) and younger and more vibrant ones such Ali Mohtahari (son of the noted Islamic Scholar Morteza Motahari and a current member of parliament), strengthened the forces behind Rouhani. Thinking and planning for all this started way before the election by two of the top politicians of the moderate and reformist camp Ex-Presidents Mohammad Khatami and Hashemi Rafsanjani (and those in their circles). While the principalists appeared divided over how to handle Ahmadinejad's last destructive strategies (i.e. his accusations against the Larijani brothers heading the judiciary and the parliament), Rafsanjani and Khatami pulled together a team to strategize and prepare for the election.

The Iranian election seasons are relatively short. Often the candidates' credentials are not verified by the Guardian Council until the last month and patterns of progress among the candidates begin to emerge in the last two week. Showing clear understanding of the situation, Hashemi and Khatami played their cards in a timely fashion. The Power structure within the Islamic Republic frequently uses elimination as its primary strategy for handling opponents. One of the greatest achievements of these two politicians has been to refuse to be eliminated despite being deeply marginalized after the 2009 controversial elections during which they sided with the protests of the Green Movement. The price they paid was heavy. Rafsanjani, for example, asked his son Mehdi to return to Iran from England in September 2012 to face charges of corruption. He was detained upon arrival in Tehran airport. Likewise, in March 2012, Mohammad Khatami participated in the parliamentary elections which had been boycotted by reformists. This move drew heavy criticism and accusations of lack of resolve from reformists across the world including members of his family. As the leader of the reform movement, Khatami was expected to stay loyal to the boycott as a sign of protest to the house arrest of the leaders of the Green Movement and the highly undemocratic atmosphere dominant in the country. His voting, viewed as betrayal of reporters and activists languishing in Evin Prison due to participation in protests, guaranteed his continued inclusion in the system.

As early as six months before the elections, both Khatami and Hashemi were approached by various individuals and groups to run for presidency. Khatami formed an advisory council made up of 46 reformists to come up with election plans. By April of 2013, two-and-a half months before the election, it became clear that Khatami was not going to run for presidency (In a speech to a reformist group in his hometown Yazd, Khatami described the decision as an effort to deny the Guardian Council the opportunity to disqualify him). In April 2013, the advisory council proposed five potential reformist candidates, among them Mohammad Reza Aref, a PhD from Stanford University and ex-vice president to Mohammad Khatami. Aref made it through the vetting of the Guardian Council as the sole reformist candidate in the 2013 election. The council was focused on disqualifying two more "dangerous" candidates: Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, a close ally of Ahmadinejad and Hashemi Rafsanjani. It is Rafsanjani's situation that concerns us here.

A close disciple of the founder of the revolution and a two-term president, Rafsanjani is a centrist and a pragmatist. Since Ahmadinejad's rise to power in 2005 and particularly since the 2009 disputed elections, Rafsanjani has consistently sided with the reformists. Though marginalized after the crackdown on the Green Movement, and after his famous Friday sermon in their support, Rafsanjani has displayed incredible ability to survive and remained in his position as the Chairman of the Expediency Council. Forcing him to fall in line has been a major challenge for the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Despite these pressures, and charges of running a corrupt financial empire, Rafsanjani has made a remarkable comeback in the public opinion.

Minutes before the deadline on May 11, 2013 Rafsanjani declared his candidacy. The timing of the news, coupled with the fact that Khatami was not running, created a wave of excitement across the country. Cars sounded their honks and people were caught on cell phone cameras expressing joy on streets in various cities. On May 21st, after extensive debates, and according to Rafsanjani, direct interference by Heydar Moslehi Minister of Intelligence, the Guardian Council declared him unfit to run for President due to old age. The news was almost unthinkable. In his campaign manager's words, "Rafsanjani is the ID Card of this Revolution. No wise person revokes his own ID card." Indeed, attempts had been to convince him to step down voluntarily but he had refused.

Rafsanjani made it clear right away that he was not going to challenge the decision of the Guardian Council circumventing possible moves to use the conflict to get him into deeper conflict with the Supreme Leader. Indeed, the latter thanked him publicly for compliance with the law. Combining Khamenei's support with popular sympathy resulting from being disqualified, Rafsanjani turned personal defeat into a spotlight preparing the ground for launching his allay and protégé, the pragmatist candidate who had made it through the Council's vetting: Hassan Rouhani.

Accepting the council's decision made Rafsanjani an insider who spoke freely on confidential matters. He claimed the Council had been pressured by Ministry of intelligence to change its initial vote in his favor and had tried to get him step down voluntarily. This, he suggested, was after an informal poll taken among the members of the militia forces, the Basij had yielded a 57% result in his favor. Considering that the Basij has been the stronghold of the Supreme Leader's supporters and that the election campaigns had not yet begun, if true, the result showed deep dissatisfaction among the Basij.

Mr. Rafsanjani did not get chastised for these disclosures. Indeed, the system, relieved that his disqualification had not led to major street protests, was unwilling to challenge him on his assertions. He utilized the unprecedented communication channel that had opened before him to inform the public of the kind of news that they hardly had access to. The state of the economy was grave, there was real threat of outside military aggression, the Chinese never returned the funds trusted to them for safekeeping during the sanctions, and the treasury was now empty. He made headlines. It seemed more necessary than ever to abandon the policy of "resistance," to embrace pragmatic politics and non-antagonistic ways of dealing with the world.

The principalists' camp lacked such voices of reason. The three top candidates included Saeed Jalili, an ex-deputy foreign minister and the supreme leader's special envoy in the nuclear negotiations since 2007. He had failed consistently to achieve anything but harsher sanctions. On the cultural front, he promised social media censorship and full gender segregation. Mr. Mohamad Bagher Ghalibaf, an ex-Basij commander and current mayor of Tehran, had a better record of success. But he boasted of beating up students during demonstrations and called the internet "the house of sin." The third credible principalist candidate, Ali Akbar Velayati, an ex-minister of foreign affairs (1981-1997) and an advisor on international affairs to the Supreme Leader, was respected diplomat. But he proudly described himself as a "May I, Sir?" person; a politician who will not take action without the permission of the Supreme Leader. He did not appeal to younger voters.

Equally damaging to the Principalists camp was the deep divisions that existed among their supporters. Furthermore, during the debates, Ghalibaf's bold manners highlighted Velayati's lack of energy and Velayati's diplomatic skills revealed Jalili's deficiency in that area. Moreover, in Iranian politics, the organizational vacuum caused by the absence of long established political parties is often filled by charismatic figures that help chart the trajectory of the political moves. Unlike the moderates and the reformists who had two leaders in the person of Rafsanjani and Khatami to pull a team together to strategize, the principalists did not look up to major leaders. The Supreme Leader could, in theory, be such a symbolic figure. But he limited himself to very general remarks. Indeed, it was not clear who he would vote for though the public guess was Saeed Jalili. As a result, the top three principalists' candidates weakened each other in debates, and did not agree to form a coalition despite desperate efforts by supporters who were seeing the possibility of defeat increase daily.

Rouhani run an intelligent campaign targeting none of the principalists but his real adversary, namely the young electorate's lack of hope and willingness to participate in the election. The message he sent was that this election is different from the one in 2009. If you come out we can win, and if we win, your life could change economically and socially. When attacked, he struck back hard using his sharp memory and legal skills. In a short while, he was enough of a threat for the Principalist camp to have some of his headquarters attacked. Rumors of a disqualification of Rouhani spread as late as five days before the elections adding to his popularity. As one voter said, he is a young Rafsanjani without the corruption baggage. He highlighted his loyalty to Rafsanjani and Khatami underlining the role they will play in his administration.

The decisive step in Rouhani's victory came on June 11, only four days before the election and after the Guardian Council made it clear that Rouhani will not be disqualified in a second round of evaluation. On this day, Aref the reformist candidate stepped down. He had conducted an effective campaign and come second or third in polls in many places. Aref's open letter "Why did I enter, and why do I exist, the race" was a brief and masterful testimony to the maturation of the reformist movement. He neither sang Rouhani's praise, nor used the hyperbolic language common to Iranian politicians. His message was simple: the political process, the success of the reformists, matter more than my personal victory. I step down to serve these purposes.

Without a coalition neither Aref nor Rouhani could have won in the first round and a run-up to the election could be perilous to either. In other words, Aref would not have won with or without the coalition. Nonetheless, his graceful exit reenergized the reformist camp and made the disarray in the Principalist camp more visible. Messages of support to Rouhani poured in, starting with Khatami and Hashemi. Rouhani won with over 50% of the vote. In his victory speech, he reaffirmed his commitment to greater civic participation, opening the political space, building non-antagonistic foreign relations, countering extremism, and transcending factional politics.

Rouhani is not the reformists dream but he brings hope for substantial change. The events of the past six months testify to the complexity of the Iranian political milieu and the people's desire for change through the ballot box (even if the elections are less than perfect and change may be slow to come). Sanctions, military threats and being portrayed as a rogue nation have gone on for too long. Iranians feel they deserve a normal life and a seat at the table in the regional and international debates. They have made that clear by saying no to the co-called "politics of resistance." It is time that the world treats Rouhani as politician not a puppet as he wrestles with rampant inflation, social reform and, of course, the nuclear issue.