In capitals around the world, policy makers are today breathing a collective sigh of relief at the end of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency in Iran; an eight-year era defined by bellicose rhetoric, odious anti-Semitism, and domestic repression.
For Iran watchers, the first challenge of the post-Ahmadinejad era will be to interpret the meaning of the vote for his successor, Hassan Rowhani.
We must be wary of the two prevalent interpretations that are currently emerging. One is by the ultraconservative establishment, which did not get its favoured candidate elected, but which cites the high turnout as proof that the Islamic regime is in fine health and enjoys broad public support. The other is by those in the Rowhani camp, which points to the victory of a “moderate” (more on than adjective below) candidate as proof that meaningful positive changes are possible within the framework of the Islamic Republic.
In the end, Mr. Rowhani’s election means considerably less than either of those interpretations suggest.
For a flavour of the establishment’s analysis, look no further than the Iranian Supreme Leader’s Twitter account (yes, the septuagenarian Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has an active presence on Twitter and Instagram.) Shortly before the election, Mr. Khamenei tweeted that “a vote for any of these candidates is a vote for the Islamic Republic [and] a vote of confidence in the system.” Mr. Khamenei assumed that the electorate would participate in this election – a charade in which applicants were thoroughly vetted by the unelected Guardian Council and only those with intense fealty to the Supreme Leader and Revolutionary Guards were allowed to stand as candidates – only if they endorsed the general framework of his regime.
But if you talk to the Iranians who voted for Mr. Rowhani, or read what they say in cyberspace, you will find that their reason for participating was entirely different than what Mr. Khamenei claimed. The people recognized that their choice was between bad and worse. Yet they voted for the least distasteful candidate as a rebuke to an establishment that has oppressed them for three decades and has tried to communicate to them, in the wake of the fraudulent 2009 election, that the electorate’s preferences are meaningless.
On a Facebook page affiliated with the opposition Green movement, a voter named Ali Kolaie wrote openly to Mr. Rowhani, whose campaign had adopted purple as its official colour, that “my vote is not strictly for you….My vote is for democracy. My vote is for liberty. Your purple is the colour of the bruises on the bodies of millions who wore green and were beaten.”
The view, encountered often, illustrates that contrary to the establishment spin, the vote was not a sign of confidence in the regime. It was not even necessarily a vote for Mr. Rowhani. Iranians cast their ballots against Mr. Khamanei and the theocracy.
The other common interpretation is also not without its pitfalls. It would be hasty to conclude, as jubilant crowds in Tehran apparently do, that a vote for Mr. Rowhani will actually bring anything but cosmetic change.
The demands of the Iranian people were articulated clearly during their mass protests in 2009. They want democracy, human rights, an improved economy, and an end to their country’s international isolation. Notwithstanding some campaign platitudes, it is not clear that Mr. Rowhani has the ability, or even the desire, to respond to those legitimate demands.
He is constrained by Islamic Republic’s constitution, which places real power in the hands of unelected individuals like the Supreme Leader and byzantine institutions like the Guardian Council, and the Assembly of Experts. The nuclear file, for example, is controlled tightly by Mr. Khamenei and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Iran’s constitution also significantly limits human rights protections, entrenching inferior status for women and religious minorities and limiting rights of speech and assembly.
But even if those constraints were lifted, nothing in Mr. Rowhani’s biography suggests that he wants the things Iranians do. Despite the status of “moderate” thrust upon him today, he is an establishment figure who served as the nuclear negotiator and a member of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council. He is close to Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president and a man known for his vast corruption and his role in the killing of dissidents at home and abroad. And he has on his resume a famous speech calling for the execution of pro-democracy student protesters in a 1999 uprising.
Despite the notes of caution above, the election has served the positive purpose of energizing a large segment of the Iranian public and has caused them to forcefully rearticulate their demands. Neither Mr. Rowhani nor any other establishment figure will be able to deliver what Iranians seek within the confines of the Islamic Republic. But one can now hold out hope that the vote will deepen fractures among Iran`s powerbrokers, providing space for a genuine democracy movement to grow.
Kaveh Shahrooz is an Iranian-Canadian lawyer in Toronto and a former senior policy advisor to Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs.