The Western media is still in shock from the results of the election in Iran. While analysts were predicting a hardliner, the most moderate of the six candidates won the election. In the aftermath of the election, Western analysts have either confused President-elect Hassan Rowhani as a hardliner holding a reformist mask, or have presented him as a reformist who could turn Iran into an ally of the West. Both these views are far from the realities of Iranian politics.
The events since the election have shown that people are, in fact, seeing Mr. Rowhani’s win as an opportunity to push the hardliners back and set the stage for reclaiming what has been lost since the “Green Revolution” uprising in the wake of the election four years ago. To understand the dynamics of post-election events we need to examine the disarray within the hardliners and the opportunity that the Iranian people seized.
The inner allies of the Supreme Leader can be grouped into three factions: the Revolutionary Guards (or Pasdaran, as they are called in Farsi), the clerics, and the government. These three factions traditionally function under the command of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. However, after the imposition of economic sanctions by the West, major conflicts among these three groups weakened their positions within the circle of power.
As much as the sanctions crippled President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government, they were a blessing for the Revolutionary Guards, who not only are the military power, but also have monopolized the economy by taking over major industrial sectors, ranging from construction to oil export. They are also accused of smuggling out narcotics and then smuggling in household items and electronics. Mr. Ahmadinejad referred to them as “smuggling brothers” (in Islamic Republic lexicon, “brother” has the same meaning as “comrade” in the ex-Soviet Union).
The tighter the sanctions became, the more lucrative the profit of the Revolutionary Guards. The conflict between Mr. Ahmadinejad and the newly-rich Guards turned into a major fight that pulled in the Supreme Leader.
The internal war was not limited to Mr. Ahmadinejad and the Guards. The row between the clerics and the Guards was equally destructive. Traditionally, the clerics considered themselves “owners” of the revolution and were used to treating the Guards as faithful young sons willing to sacrifice themselves for the benefit of “the revolution” (read: the clerics). The father-son relationship between the two ended a few years ago. The guards, now the most powerful military and economic institution in the country, turned the table and started to command their “fathers.” This disobedience was intolerable to the clerics. While members the Islamic clergy, by nature, tend to resolve issues among themselves and behind closed doors, they equally disliked the loudness of Mr. Ahmadinejad and the ambitions of the Guards.
Mr. Khamenei, torn between the three, tried hard to make peace among them, but the rifts were already established. The most difficult was Mr. Ahmadinejad, who breached the unwritten confidentiality agreement to keep any disagreement hidden from the public. Unable to resolve the fight and in dire need of the support of the powerful Islamic Guards, the Supreme Leader had no choice but to sacrifice the weakest of the three. This was Mr. Ahmadinejad, whose presidency required Mr. Khamenei to fiercely oppress the Green Movement four years ago.
With the election getting close, not only was there no sign of reconciliation among the three, but also the victorious Guards were openly talking of “engineering the election” to install their favourite candidate, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, to office. This move fueled the fire. The clerics were displeased. Not just because of the rouge son’s behaviour, but also because they could not reach consent on any of the candidates. The Supreme Leader was forced to allow five hardliners to race against each other without backing any of them.
Add to this the intense international pressure: sanctions were working. Syria – the major regional ally of the Islamic Republic – was in a civil war. With the hope of ending the fights dimming, Mr. Khamenei was stuck in a political cul-de-sac. He had no choice other than to retreat and allow a coalition of reformists and moderates to take the presidential office in order to buy time to attend to the chaos in his army. However, he needed a respectful exit strategy, and he devised a very clever one. All he needed to do was to have a fair election … with a twist!
He first made sure that the strongest generals of the opposing army, namely reformist ex-presidents Mohammad Khatami and Hashemi Rafsanjani, were out of the battle. This was done by discouraging Mr. Khatami from running and by vetting Mr. Rafsanjani by the Council of Guardians, thus taking him off the ballot. Then he allowed two mid-rank soldiers of the opposing army to run against each other hoping that the votes would be split. (This trick didn’t work: one of the candidates pulled out of the race in favour of the other.)
However, Mr. Khamenei did not have control over the will of the people.
Over the years, Iranians have developed one of the most sophisticated defence mechanisms to fight the dictatorship. They have learned how to fool the enemy by pretending to do one thing, and then do something else. The negative side effect of this trick is that it also confuses friends (including media, activists and decent pollsters). One element of this mechanism is not to tell the truth to pollsters in order to create confusion and inconsistency among different polls. This was the reason behind a few past surprises. Western governments, think tanks, and the media were all convinced that a hardliner would win the election. Canada’s Foreign Minister, John Baird, went to the extreme by issuing a statement – insulting the Iranians who consciously participated in the election – one day before the election to announce that “Given the regime’s manipulation of the collective will and democratic process, the results of the June 14 vote are effectively meaningless.”
After Mr. Rafsanjani was banned from running for office, many people decided to boycott the election, believing that the winner has already been decided (and they were of the strong belief that this winner would be Saeed Jalili, the most hardline of the five candidates). However, soon they saw the chaos in the enemy’s front. The five hardliners were attacking each other with a language never heard before and were disclosing secrets that made the Iranian Intelligence scold them. A second factor also encouraged people to change their mind: the responsibility of running the election was with Mr. Ahmadinejad’s government. People were hoping that the conflict between him and the Supreme Leader would cause the votes to be counted accurately. These shifts happened within the final 24 hours of the election and led to an upsurge in voting – and to Hassan Rowhani’s win.
The win of Mr. Rowhani, from the Iranian viewpoint, is the defeat of Ayatollah Khamenei, and the latter is what people are celebrating. During the hours before the final results were announced, the hardliners started to point fingers, blaming each other. One wing of the hardliners – led by Ali Motahari – has already defected to the moderates.
It was interesting that as soon as the results were announced people gathered in thousands to celebrate the victory, but there was no mention of Mr. Rowhani. Instead, they were chanting “Mousavi, we won back your votes,” referring to the rigged election of 2009 when reformist Mir-Hossein Mousavi was the obvious winner, but the Supreme Leader backed Mr. Ahmadinejad. Since then, Mr. Mousavi has been under house arrest. The people expressed their expectations of Mr. Rowhani by chanting “free the political prisoners” and “free Mousavi.”
Shahram Tabe, Ph.D., writes for Shahrvand (the largest Farsi language publication outside Iran) and was a recipient of the National Ethnic Media Award.