A salient message from among numerous satirical dispatches from Iran resonated well with last week’s presidential elections. It said, “in other countries people go to the poll booths to elect their favourite candidate, in Iran we line up to vote in order to prevent a particular candidate from winning.” This indeed reflects Iranians’ attitude and reaction to an ‘engineered’ electoral process. Reflecting on the people’s past voting strategies where people have to elect from the list of hand-picked candidates of the establishment, I wrote earlier that, “The key questions on the minds of the Iranians who want to vote strategically are: which candidate will be in a better position to possibly weaken the Supreme Leader? Which will be less detrimental in terms of economic mismanagement? And more importantly, which candidate will be less dangerous than the others in terms of brazen violations of human rights and civil liberties?”
No one had any doubt that the Supreme Leader’s choice was one from among the hardline Principlists subservient to him. But the Islamist reformists led by former President Khatami withdrew their sole candidate (Mohammad Reza Aref) and along with the pragmatists, led by another former president Rafsanjani, put their weight behind Hassan Rowhani. During the presidential debates, Rowhani proffered a platform that included such burning demands of most Iranians as release of political prisoners, reducing tensions with the west, and addressing unemployment. Unexpectedly he gained the majority in the first round. The establishment could, as in previous elections have brought out someone else’s name from the ballot box. But the costs of the loss of credibility for the Supreme Leader after the 2009 presidential elections forced him to be more cautious this time.
Other reasons were at work as well. Both the regime and the public are wary of the future. The danger of war was very much in the minds of the voters, and those in charge of managing the elections. Sanctions have caused enormous problems as well. Hence, the public simply voted for the less dangerous candidate, Hassan Rowhani, who for the following reasons also triggered least concern for the establishment.
Firstly, Iran has multiple states, one is the regular one headed by the President, the other and the more powerful one is the beyt-e rahbar (office of the Supreme Leader) which duplicates the ministries, and decides on foreign affairs, the security and armed forces, and the state media. The third one is controlled by the Islamic Guards Corps, which is involved in all sectors of economy. There is also the bonyads (religious foundations, and shrines) that control over 20 percent of the Iranian economy. So the President has limited powers. In addition, the Majlis, the parliament, and the Judiciary, are also under full control of the Principlists.
Secondly, Rowhani is an establishment man. He has a most extensive resume among the Islamic Republic’s officials. He has been in all branches of the regime; as a member of the Assembly of Experts (that chooses the Leader), member of the Expediency Council (that has the final word on disputed issues between the Parliament and the Guardian Council.). Also for 16 years he has been the Secretary of the National Security Council; was the Commander of the Air-defence System during the Iran Iraq war; Deputy Commander of the Armed Forces, Chief of Staff of the most important and largest corporation of the Islamic Guards (involved in infrastructure, refinery; pipelines, dams, etc) a Member of Parliament for 20 years, and Chief nuclear negotiator under President Khatami.