World Middle East

Rouhani's election victory in Iran was dramatic, but how deep did it go?

breaking barriers

For President Rouhani to parlay his reelection mandate into real changes in Iran's 'deep state' power structure, he would need the support of conservatives. For now, that is unlikely.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, seen here May 10, 2017 attending the graduation ceremony of a group of Revolutionary Guard cadets in Tehran, is still at the top of Iran's leadership chain. Notably, he did not mention President Hassan Rouhani by name when he praised the Iranian people and their 73 percent turnout as the “winner” of the May 19 election.
Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader/AP
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Dancing in the streets to the powerful beats from car sound systems – on virtually the one day every four years that such spontaneous public parties are tolerated – Iranians joyously celebrated the reelection of their hero, President Hassan Rouhani.

Mr. Rouhani has promised greater freedoms and vowed to reconnect Iran to the world, and as voters celebrated, they chanted for the release of opposition leaders.

But the jubilation had another cause, too: the rejection, by a wide margin, of hard-line challenger Ebrahim Raisi, who had the backing of key regime power centers in Iran, including the top brass of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

Yet, wide as Mr. Rouhani’s victory has been – 57 percent of the vote to Mr. Raisi’s 38 percent in the May 19 election – significant questions remain.

Can Rouhani convert his renewed popular mandate, and the clear direction toward openness demanded by voters, into changes in Iran’s revolutionary “deep state”?

And will the failure of Iran’s hard-line camp to expand its own popular appeal, despite key advantages like full control of state media, help change the fundamental balance of power that has thwarted reform-minded presidents for two decades?

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is still at the top of the leadership chain, and notably did not mention Rouhani by name when he praised the Iranian people and their 73 percent turnout as the “winner” of the vote.

According to one Iranian official in Tehran, Mr. Khamenei also declined a request to meet Rouhani, whose campaign rhetoric broke taboos as he attacked regime elements like the IRGC, judiciary, and intelligence organs that have undermined him for four years.

For now that is unlikely to change, the official says.

“Rouhani’s second term will not be better than his first,” says the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “The only hope is the support of the people, but if the situation gets worse, do you think they will still chant in favor of him and dance? I hope I am wrong.”

A key to maintaining that support will be for the Islamic regime to “give some minor freedom” to the public, he says. “A small amount of freedom can suffice,” says the official. But the traditional limits are likely to apply, and the president will have to navigate carefully.

The high turnout of nearly 40 million Iranian voters represents an evolution from the catastrophic disputed vote in 2009, when accusations of rigging and fraud in the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were met by months of street protests of millions of angry Iranians.

Many vowed to never vote again, to punish the nezam [governing system] for stealing their vote. Yet enough were convinced in 2013 to give Rouhani a hair-breadth first-round victory – partly based on Rouhani’s promise to get the release of the still-popular leaders of that Green Movement, under house arrest since 2011, and aware that boycotting the vote would hand hard-liners easy victory.

Challenge to represent all Iranians

In Iran’s deeply polarized and politicized society, where the candidates each portrayed their opponents as the kiss of death to the ideals of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, the challenge for the moderate Rouhani will be representing all Iranians, as he has promised to do, including the conservatives.

Their support would be crucial if Rouhani has any hope of translating the result of the vote into changes in Iran’s “deep state” power institutions, sometimes called in Persian the dolat-e penhan, or “hidden government.”

“Even in the most hard-line corners of the nezam, the republican nature of the Islamic Republic is appreciated and they know they cannot neutralize public demands, and will have to allow the president to deliver,” says Adnan Tabatabai, an Iran analyst and head of the Bonn-based Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient (CARPO).

“Rouhani’s task will be to engage them, and make them actually participate in this election victory,” says Mr. Tabatabai, who was in Iran during the election period.

“He should let them capitalize on what he and his camp have achieved. The famous win-win approach he has defined for foreign policy,” he says, “he will have to do the same on domestic issues.”

The president’s decades-long history as a regime insider and years as head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council have improved his chances. But he has been targeted constantly by his opponents, and even called a “traitor.”

“Rouhani is exactly the right person to know the right approach to do this. He was quite bold, and very open and explicit in criticizing the judiciary and security apparatus,” says Tabatabai.

No embrace of unity

So far, there are no signs that hard-liners are ready to embrace unity, after such a bitterly contested race. Conservative media are still working to discredit Rouhani’s victory, just as they have long disparaged his policies and lionized Raisi’s candidacy.

In one example this week, the editor of the hard-line Kayhan newspaper, Hossein Shariatmadari – whose business card notes that he is an official representative of the supreme leader – argued that the election result would have been different if Raisi, who won nearly 16 million votes after just 40 days of campaigning, had four years to prepare, like Rouhani did.

The loss still stings for some hard-liners, who have viewed Raisi as a possible successor to Khamenei, ever since the supreme leader elevated the 56-year-old to head the most significant religious conglomerate and endowment in Iran, the shrine to the 8th Shiite Imam Reza in Mashhad, in northeast Iran.

Soon after his appointment, top IRGC commanders including Qods Force chief Qassem Soleimani met with Raisi. During the election campaign, IRGC-funded media boosted Raisi while they denigrated Rouhani.

And a few weeks before the vote, the Tehran Friday prayer leader raised eyebrows when he gave Raisi an indirect plug: “Let’s pray to God that the candidate liked by Imam Reza comes out of the ballot box,” he said.

Like the hard-liners, Rouhani, too, has been less than conciliatory, accusing his rival again on Wednesday of using popular devotion to Imam Reza to gain votes.

Raisi's chances likely damaged

Meanwhile, any chance of Raisi now becoming supreme leader may have been damaged by his defeat. Some argue that letting that happen was a deliberate strategy by Khamenei, and note that power centers in Iran that oppose Rouhani are far from monolithic.

“I am sure the leader knew that [fundamentalist] candidates are no match for Rouhani,” says the Iranian official in Tehran.

“I believe the leader wanted to prove that Raisi is not a good person to fill his position. He is not happy with Rouhani either, but Rouhani is not a direct threat to him,” says the official.

One key result of the election is a widening gap between the leader and the IRGC, says the official.

“There are certain groups of Guard commanders who are opposing [Khamenei] on domestic and international issues,” says the official. “They were the ones the leader wanted to prove that Raisi is not a good choice, neither for the presidency nor [supreme] leadership.… The question is if Rouhani can use this opportunity or not.”

The commanders, including IRGC chief Mohammad Ali Jafari, “have power, money, media, and foot soldiers” and a core mission of saving the nezam. They “want to prove the Rouhani team is not functioning well” in handling President Trump and Iran’s regional power struggle for influence, the official adds. 

Rouhani will want to demonstrate the opposite, buoyed by his new mandate.

Even in these bastions of power are supporters of Rouhani and “people who have brothers, sisters, cousins who are supportive of the moderate and reformist camp,” says Tabatabai of CARPO.

“I think this may prevent a very hard pushback, but this obviously does not mean that Rouhani will now have an easy job,” he adds. “The people, the voters, forced themselves onto the structure of the ‘deep state,’ of the security apparatus. By turning out in these huge numbers, they made it impossible to be ignored.”