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Iranian Moderate Rowhani Wins Presidential Election

Hassan Rowhani pre-election rally. Guess Javedanfar missed this. (Demotix)

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.

{ 22 comments… add one }
  • Damien Flinter June 16, 2013, 1:31 AM

    You omit the minor fly in the ointment of Nut&yahoo and his enemy manufacuring spindustry to keep the hasparanoia simmering..oh…and the real nuclear threat in the region..his arsenal. If that WASP’s outpost is not smoked into sanity its a matter of time before the spark hits the tinder in the oil barrel. But the AIPAC wad wags the whole hive.

    • Moses June 16, 2013, 9:34 AM

      Damien, it’s not appropriate to make fun of the Israeli PM’s name. Aside from it being immature in general, it is also insensitive at least, since the last element of his name “Yahu” or “Yaho” is based on the biblical Hebrew name of God, as pronounced in Iron Age paleo Hebrew. So it’s also insulting in a religious sense, for Christians, as well as Jews.


      Moses Sparkman

      • Ondo June 16, 2013, 11:53 PM

        Damien, I think what Moses is trying to say is that he considers your wonderful attempt at a new spelling for the Israeli president’s name to be in fact considered anti-semitic.

        But I’d also like to point out that 99.9% of us appreciate that type of humour so thank you.

      • Elisabeth June 17, 2013, 7:39 AM

        Should he not be called Netany-h then? What a bother. People have the right to change their family names, as his father did, but to me he has been Mileikowsky ever since he tried to con the world with a fake family name connection to ancient Jerusalem:

        “”In my office in Jerusalem, there’s a — there’s an ancient seal. It’s a signet ring of a Jewish official from the time of the Bible. The seal was found right next to the Western Wall, and it dates back 2,700 years, to the time of King Hezekiah. Now, there’s a name of the Jewish official inscribed on the ring in Hebrew. His name was Netanyahu. That’s my last name. My first name, Benjamin, dates back a thousand years earlier to Benjamin — Binyamin — the son of Jacob, who was also known as Israel. Jacob and his 12 sons roamed these same hills of Judea and Sumeria 4,000 years ago, and there’s been a continuous Jewish presence in the land ever since.”

        • Elisabeth June 17, 2013, 7:40 AM

          That should have been Samaria obviously.

        • Moses June 17, 2013, 8:55 AM


          Jewish family names are relatively recent, Jews originally using patronymics, until the non-Jewish authorities force them to adopt names. It is also natural that Jews returning to their homeland, would want to reconnect with their ancient heritage by adopting new names. There is no “real” Jewish name there. Such a belief on your part makes me uncomfortable, and reminds me of 19th/20th century European views of Jews as foreigners, wearing white gentleman masks to cover their true ogre-like “Semitic” faces. Now it’s the opposite! Jews really are just white! Can Jews ever catch a break?


          Moses Sparkman

          • Elisabeth June 17, 2013, 11:24 AM

            Listen, where I live most people used patronymics until they were ‘forced’ to adopt last names by Napoleon. Patronymics are not unique to Jews, nor were only Jews ‘forced’ to adopt last names. Please quit dividing history and the world up into ‘non-Jews’ who ‘force’ and ‘Jews’ who are their victims. Most people’s ancestors are victims of something or other if you count the many injustices perpetrated through history. It is not as if everybody enjoyed wonderful human rights and the Jews were the only exception. Most Russian peasants were slaves until 1861 for God’s sake, and the status of women was often hardly better than slaves so what are we talking about.

            The rest of what you say is rather incoherent and hard to react to, but it seems you refer to my saying that Netanyahu tried to con the world with a fake name: I do not care that his family chose a new name. I do not consider such a thing ‘fake’; but it becomes deceit (yes fake) when he pretends this new name ‘proves’ an old connection of himself and his family to the land of Israel. That ring with the name Netanyahu is totally unrelated to him. To pretend otherwise while not disclosing the fact that his family name is new and was chosen by his father is deceit. Did you get that from what I wrote?

            If you do, please apologize for suggesting that I hold “19th/20th century European views of Jews as foreigners, wearing white gentleman masks to cover their true ogre-like “Semitic” faces”.

            By the way: There are also Israeli’s who see discarding their old European names as denying their past.
            Something for you to think about: Why discard a venerable and very real European past for a past that is romantic but probably not very real.

          • Moses June 17, 2013, 11:57 AM

            I do not see from the quote that Netanyahu is claiming to be related or descended from the figure named on the ring, only that the names are the same, which is significant within the overall Jewish people’s connection to the Land of Israel, which is what he is referring to.

            Also Jews don’t claim to be inspired by Scriptures but claim to BE the people mentioned in them! If others, such as Christians, use Jewish names because they are inspired that’s great, but that can’t be compared to the Jews’ own use of their own names!

            Also the fact that Jews were not the only ones forced to adopt names does not affect the substance of what I am saying concerning the Jewish people’s connection to Israel.

            And why is the European past more real? Would you say such a thing to any other group of people, such as immigrants from another country for example? Is that rhetoric not the domain of the far-right? Yet for Jews you are too okay with it yes? The fact is that these Jews are NOW living in Israel, starting a new life in their own land, and it’s just as real, if not more so within the context of their overall identity as Israeli Jews.

          • Richard Silverstein June 17, 2013, 12:26 PM

            @Moses: Do NOT even come close to playing the “anti-Semitism” card here. And read the comment rules carefully before you comment again. Some of these hasbarist thought patterns may come naturally to you & you may not be able to control your reactions, but here you follow the rules.

        • Moses June 17, 2013, 9:01 AM

          And no it does not require hyphens, when it’s part of name. Many Jewish first names are biblical Hebrew as well: like Yeshayahu (Isaiah) Hezqiyahu (Hezekiah) Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) etc.


          Moses Sparkman

        • Moses June 17, 2013, 9:21 AM

          One more thing Elizabeth: what is the difference between first and last names? Most Jews have biblical first names, their Hebrew names. If you meet a secular Jew named Patrick, let’s say, he probably also has a biblical Hebrew name as well. Is that “fake” as well? If you visit any Jewish cemetery, from
          ancient to medieval to one in Kansas, the tombstones will be engraved with the deceased’s biblical Hebrew names as well. Is that all “fake” to you as well? What is the difference? Some Jews simply applied to their last names, what is already latent in most Jews’ first names for centuries.

          • Elisabeth June 17, 2013, 11:32 AM

            Most European have Biblical first names as well. Some clearly New Testament-related (such as mine), but among protestants especially, Rachels, Abrahams, Jacobs, Leahs, Naboths, Benjamins, Jonases, and Sarahs abound.
            That means that just as the Jews they were inspired by the Biblical scriptures. No more and no less. Fist names are not related to descent, only last names.

          • Richard Silverstein June 17, 2013, 12:27 PM

            @Moses: Another comment rule: don’t monopolize the threads. Don’t publish many rapid fire comments when one will do. Do not publish more than three comments in any 24 hour period. Again, read those comment rules.

            Of course Bibi’s Hebrew-appropriated name is “fake.” It corresponds to his desperate attempt to co-opt Jewish history to create a fictional Jewish-Israeli identity. It’s informed by his Revisionist Zionist ideology. Clearly.

            I’m also getting annoyed by the continuing “lessons” in Jewish identity.

      • Richard Silverstein June 17, 2013, 12:12 PM

        Please don’t determine the rules around here. While I personally think using that term to refer to Netanyahu is a bit silly, it doesn’t violate the comment rules.

  • Patrick June 16, 2013, 6:15 AM

    I think you underestimate the forces, systemic and otherwise, that are pushing towards a military confrontation with Iran.

    Most of the resolutions by the US Congress against Iran have very little to do with its nuclear enrichment. The overwhelming majority of the US-imposed sanctions would stay in place even if Iran would stop any and all nuclear related activities.

    Iran is considered a threat to the hegemonic ambitions by the US and Israel. As the military capabilities are still there to reduce Iran’s regional power (unlike those of North Korea, Russia and China), these steps are very likely to be taken.

    Iran has had the temerity to upend the US imposed Shah and showed opposition to other US and Israeli initiated schemes in this region of the world. That’s why this charade is ongoing.

    The overarching theme here is: Might makes right.

    The threats and warnings will thus continue until its bloody denouement, if interests in the US and Israel consider bringing Iran to heel a price worth paying for.

    The only way that a military confrontation will be avoided is if the US and Israel accept Iran as a legitimate regional power. Fat chance.

  • lifelong June 16, 2013, 6:20 AM

    2 pitfalls in your analysis:

    1) The clerics are no longer the most powerful institution in Iran: it’s by far the military so any notion Khamenei is the sole decision maker in the country is incorrect.
    2) The clerics are divided into two main camps, split between Rafsanjani/Khatami and Khamenei.

    Since Rohani’s hands aren’t necessarily tied to Khamenei, he can in fact implement real change with the clout and influence of Rafsanjani behind him. Don’t forget it was Rafsanjani that appointed Khamenei in the first place, and when Khamenei steps down or dies, unless the position is scrapped for good, he should be next in line.

    • moshfeq June 16, 2013, 12:51 PM

      The clerics & the Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) leadership share power. The latter’s substantial political & economic gain during the past decade or so has been facilitated by the top cleric, Khamenei, who is still the most influential person in the country. Rafsanjani & Khatami have been almost entirely pushed out of the establishment by Khamenei & allies; their official influence is not comparable to the Supreme Leader. They still have scattered sympathizers within parts of the establishment, but gain their tactical support mostly from various dissident or disaffected groups outside the system. When Khamenei dies, and if the power structure has not changed qualitatively by then, Rafsanjani is not likely to be anointed the Supreme Leader. He is not in the same position of power that he was when he anointed Khamenei a quarter-century ago. If Khamenei dies before being overthrown, I think they will have a crisis of leadership to deal with, and nobody outside the top leadership, if even them, seems to know clearly how they will deal with it.

      • lifelong June 16, 2013, 4:11 PM

        All fair points, and as much as I am overestimating Rafsanjani’s influence, I still believe you’re underestimating it. His surprisingly large popular support after 2009 does give him some sort of legitimacy other parts of the establishment don’t have… For whatever it’s worth.

        Either way, fully agree with you that the office of the spiritual leader no longer wields absolute power. The military has taken a front seat right next to him, and let’s be honest, could depose him if they so choose. The only issue would be the Basij, and with numbers being thrown around of 7’000’000 men, whoever they side with would be critical in any kind of ‘coup’.

        I mention a coup, because I’m convinced that’s how this story will end: either there’s a peaceful transition to secular military rule devised by the clerics themselves as a ruse to continue their grip on power, or the military will at some point take the country by force. Religion will always take a back seat to power.

        • moshfeq June 18, 2013, 10:30 PM

          Whatever the IRGC’s capabilities for a coup-like takeover may be, it would be costly & possibly fatal for them to do so. Whatever its legitimacy among the populace may or may not be, the ideological underpinning of the Islamic Republic is based on the supreme jurisprudence of the top cleric. A naked military takeover would not only violate that ideological basis, but also discredit them internationally. More than likely, it would provoke international isolation & sanctions, much more than now.
          Also, all these scenarios of good-cleric-vs-bad-cleric or which-mullah-will-outlive-the-other-one, ignore the role of civic society and its demands from below. If these NGOs manage to organize themselves better, given the possible openings w/ Rouhani’s election, they may be able to implement some of their demands & preempt shenanigans from the top. Speaking of Rafsanjanis, an example of such civil activists, would be Rafsanjani’s daughter Faezeh Hashemi, a women’s rights activist & former parliament member, who is considerably more liberal & civil-rights-minded than her father, and has been jailed for such activities: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Faezeh_Hashemi
          There are many others like her, who w/ proper organization could be a decisive factor in Iran’s political evolution.

    • Richard Silverstein June 17, 2013, 1:35 AM

      @lifelong: Rafsanjani is 76 years old. So when Khamenei dies, the job won’t necessarily go to Rafsanjani. But it could go to someone Rafsanjani supports. But then again that was Khamenei way back, wasn’t it?

      But I hope you’re right about Rouhani being able to expedite change.

  • Shlomi a June 16, 2013, 8:34 AM

    You have not shown any other person who predicted Rowhani victory. The link you provide does not predict his victory, it just describes his camapign. It does not say he is going to win. You need to provide a better link.

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