Today’s surprising news that a relatively moderate cleric, Hassan Rowhani has won the Iranian presidential election carries a few important meanings and raises several pitfalls we should avoid. First, it means that Ayatollah Khamenei determined he didn’t want a repeat of the 2009 election and decided not to prevent the real winner from assuming the presidency as may or may not have happened in 2009. Second, it means that Khamenei likely determined that Rowhani will not present a serious threat to clerical power or his regime. That in turn means that Rowhani is not likely to rock the boat in a serious way. He will be someone with whom the Supreme Leader, as Margaret Thatcher said of Gorbachev, “can do business.”
This, in turn, means many of us outside Iran, and perhaps many millions of his voters inside the country may be disappointed if they expected serious or radical change as a result of this election (sounds reminiscent of a recent U.S. presidential election!). The best we can hope is that Rowhani will keep the seat warm and when Khamenei dies that it will allow a true reformer to compete and possibly win the most powerful job.
Since Rowhani served as Mohammed Khatami’s nuclear negotiator, and presided over the only true suspension of the program Iran ever agreed to, we can presume there will be more flexibility in the country’s posture towards the west. Though, we also should keep in mind that Khamenei keeps the nuclear portfolio solidly locked up for himself. If Rowhani has any influence it will be by dint of personality or persuasion, rather than direct order.
The most important question now is how the west will react to this opportunity. It offers the U.S. and its allies a new, unexpected and golden opportunity to pull a rabbit out of a hat. They all expected the hard-line to continue with this election. But those expectations have been upended. Will the west rise to the occasion and put forward serious initiatives that may break the logjam? Or will it continue with the same nondescript proposals that got them nowhere.
There is a chance, possibly a very slim one, for a comprehensive, far-reaching agreement if the west is willing to end sanctions, recognize Iran, and accept some level of Iranian uranium enrichment that is constrained below weapons-grade.
There is a portion of the Iran-related punditocracy that has really been thrown for a loop. All the anti-regime analysts like Meir Javedanfar and others in the neocon think-tank community expected Iran to put its worst foot forward by electing a hardliner. When it didn’t happen it must’ve broken their hearts.
Javedanfar offered up his pre-election thoughts for Al-Monitor which focused on the presidential candidacy of Tehran’s mayor, Ghalibaf. He didn’t mention Rowhani’s name once in the entire article. Writing in his blog, Javedanfar offered Rowhani a 10% chance of becoming president. The “analyst” did concede the candidate might get the most votes. But he was certain the fix would be in and Khamenei would not let Rowhani win. In fact, Javedanfar said explicitly he would not vote given the chance because the election was rigged.
At the UK’s arch pro-Israel Jewish Chronicle he went even farther:
“…It is safe to say that moderate candidate Hassan Rowhani has no chance of success. There is little doubt that Mr Rowhani and the Stanford educated reformist Mohammad Reza Aref are far more popular than the conservative candidates. However, the supreme leader would not allow votes in their favour to be counted.”
Other Iran analysts (and here) did better than Javedanfar in predicting a Rowhani victory. So the Israeli-Iranian can’t fall back on the excuse that he had it wrong just like everyone else. Other excellent Iran pre-election analysis is here and here.
As a Twitter follower wrote to me, aren’t we lucky that 20-million Iranians didn’t fall for the sort of cynicism that Javedanfar did and that they offered their best hope for change by voting for the winner?
All of this goes to prove what a fool’s errand it is to try to predict a presidential election in a place as volatile as Iran. Javedanfar would’ve been better served had he merely offered thoughts instead of predictions. But fool’s do run in where angels fear to tread.
Add to this, Javedanfar’s equally false notion that Iran will be felled by the west’s sanctions regime as long as we keep them in place long enough. And that sanctions will bring the regime to its knees and bring the long-sought agreement the west has been after (ending the nuclear program)–and on the west’s terms. Like a clock, he may be right twice a day. But even that level of accuracy is pushing it as far as his record is concerned.Buffer