A safe pair of old hands now holds the key to Iran’s future

Safe pair of hands: Rowhani in nuclear negotiations in 2003. Mojtaba Salimi via Creative Commons

In the past 10 days big crowds of Iranians have taken to the streets to celebrate two things. The outpouring of joy for the unexpected first-round victory of Hassan Rowhani in the presidential election was a prelude for a street party following 90 minutes of a tantalisingly close football match against South Korea which saw both countries make it through to the 2014 World Cup finals.

The Tehran media and commentators were quick to associate the two events into the big hamaseh, or epic, that coalesced the political and the sporting spheres. After years of political, economic and social crises, a feel-good factor began to permeate Iranian society: two short-term events combined to bring an end to eight years of gloom and despair.

Much of the euphoria and sense of optimism which is sweeping across Iranian society has to do with the way last Friday’s poll was conducted. Many of the actors in this collective drama confounded expectations.

Lively and unexpected contest

What was expected was a lacklustre, low turnout moment of passage from the administration of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to what many perceived to be the natural outcome of these presidential elections, a victory for a conservative candidate strictly loyal to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. What they got was a lively and unexpected contest between members of the small cohort of inner-regime loyalists made available to the Iranian electorate by the electoral pre-screening of the guardian council, during which each turned on the other over fundamental issues.

The first phase of any Iranian presidential election is the five-day window in which any citizen can register to compete. This process is seen by dozens if not hundreds of ordinary citizens as the chance to enjoy the media limelight in a nation usually bereft of such opportunities. Of 700 candidates who enrolled, about 30 belonged to the Islamic Republic’s sprawling political elite.

At what felt like the last minute, two of the most anticipated contestants - Ahmadinejad’s right-hand man Esfandiar Rahim Mashai and the former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani - finally registered, prompting a frenzied reaction from media and public alike.

People thronged the entrance to the interior ministry, greeting Rafsanjani’s arrival in a jubilant mood, but 10 days later, the guardian council struck both the former president and Mashai off the final list of eight approved candidates. A council spokesman had previously stated that prospective candidates who were deemed to be too old to face the heavy daily tasks of a president were to be struck off the list. As it turned out, that meant Rafsanjani.

As a dispirited moderate and reformist camp mulled its options, the attention slowly turned to the eight candidates who made it to the polling day. Six were prominent members of the disunited conservative camp: prominent amongst them, the Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqir Qalibaf, the former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati and the current nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili. The moderate camp’s two candidates, the former chief nuclear negotiator Hassan Rowhani and the former first vice-president Mohammad Reza Aref, were given little chance of victory.

As with past presidential elections, however, the last couple of weeks of campaigning proved decisive in both overturning the overall mood of the contest and its result. As a bored population tuned in for the last of three four-hour debates, which took place on the Friday preceding the vote and which was dedicated to foreign and domestic policy, no one could have predicted the impromptu turn towards the all-out confrontation which ensued.

Rowhani’s performance was strong and it electrified his campaign. His campaign symbol was a set of giant keys, promising to re-open the doors to a new form of governance. His message was to see the back of the people who had run Iran so badly for the past eight years and to revisit Iran’s nuclear programme. This struck a chord with those who saw the price paid for proceeding with the nuclear programme as too high. The elections turned into a referendum, of sorts, on Iran’s nuclear programme.

A watershed moment came on June 11 when Khatami and Rafsanjani broke their silence and endorsed Rowhani, compelling Aref to withdraw from the race. This intervention would prove decisive - Rowhani went on to receive 50.7% of the votes cast, a sliver above the absolute majority mark but nearly 35% more than the votes garnered by his nearest rival, Qalibaf.

Establishment figure committed to reform

A 64-year-old establishment figure, Rowhani is in many ways what the doctor would have ordered for the Islamic Republic at this stage in its political trajectory. Rowhani’s elevation to the presidency marks a comeback for that generation within the political elite which ran the state in the 1980s and 1990s and were shunted to a side by the rise of Ahmadinejad in 2005.

His rise marks the realisation, both within the upper echelons of the political class and society at large, that the firebrand generation embodied by Ahmadinejad and Jalili do not have the ability and consensus to establish a durable government. He is an establishment figure, with extensive experience in the most sensitive realms of statecraft and with a proven track record of succeeding in obtaining the Supreme Leader’s support.

Rowhani was therefore an ideal choice for a political elite in need of a figure who could heal and bridge fissures and divisions which have been enlarged by the crisis of the past four years. In this sense, he is a belated political heir to his mentor, Rafsanjani. The extent of his success will depend on his ability to bridge the still-considerable divide between various power groups, who have been jostling for position over the past few days, including the conservative factions, reformists and the press.

A measure of his success will be Rowhani’s ability to deliver on his pledge to loosen the security atmosphere and the restrictions on intellectual and political life which have become a staple of the past eight years while also reassuring influential stakeholders such as Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards that he does not represent a threat to their dominant position.

The president-elect himself has chosen to tread a careful line in his first press conference, where he lamented the deep frost in Iran-US ties as an “old wound which needs to be healed” and pledged to improve the conditions of political prisoners without promising a swift liberation, as demanded incessantly by his voters, of Mousavi and Karroubi.

The approval of his cabinet, which is rumoured to be full of Rafsanjani and Khatami-era politicians, will provide a better picture of his inclinations on domestic and foreign policy. Until then, Iran will revel in the thought that the downwards drift of the Ahmadinejad years has been brought to an end with the slightest of efforts, and the doors to a brighter future rest in the safe pair of old hands who is called to a difficult, but not insurmountable task.