To the shock of many Iranians—myself included—moderate, centrist cleric Hassan Rouhani was elected the sixth president of the Islamic Republic with almost 51% of the vote. Rouhani’s surprise victory has many practical and symbolic implications for Iran and Iranians, the most important of which is the prospect of political unity. Such unity is important for the Iranian people, the reform movement and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, as well as the international community as a whole. For a short time, it opens the door to the much-needed healing of political wounds.
Most prominently, the quest for unity has been a pivotal concern for Khamenei. Seeking to redress the tarnished political image of the Islamic Republic and halt the all-too-apparent infighting among the elite evident since the controversial 2009 presidential election, Khamenei has made a number of political appeals. Further exacerbated by President Ahmadinejad’s sensationalism, economic malaise and international sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program, the importance of unity in the face of so many obstacles is paramount for the survival of the Islamic Republic.
Factional or popular unity has never been an enduring facet of the Iranian political establishment. Factional disputes emerged as early as 1979, almost immediately after the success of the Iranian Revolution that brought together a myriad of political, social and economic groups. Ayatollah Khomeini was able to moderate such factionalism, but in the aftermath of his death in 1989, factional quarrels intensified and facilitated the birth of the reform movement. Then, the political pendulum swung from the direction of reformist President Mohamed Khatami to populist hardline conservative Ahmadinejad. However, in 2009, the outcome of the disputed presidential elections resulted in the birth of the Green Movement. This ended with a massive political crackdown, including the still-ongoing detention of presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, shifting the once-manageable dynamic to a polarized extreme.
The political environment since 2009 has continued to deteriorate, with a veil of repression hanging over Iran. Intensifying rounds of international sanctions that continue to strangle the already-fragile economy have only exacerbated these political and popular tensions.
In this vein, Khamenei invited “all political orientations and currents” to engage as presidential candidates. Expectations were that ‘unity’ would only be found within Iran’s conservative camp, or that a former president could perhaps emerge to bridge the popular divide. Many believed that a conservative loyalist close to the supreme leader would be the ideal presidential candidate. In the first scenario, unity proved elusive to the conservatives, who could not come to an agreement on a single candidate. In fact, five conservative candidates competed on the June 14 presidential ballot.
In the second case, former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani put his name forward only to be disqualified by the Guardian Council, dashing the hopes of moderates. In Rafsanjani’s place, the Council approved reformist Mohammad-Reza Aref and Hashemi Rafsanjani’s long-time ally, Hassan Rouhani. In the final days of campaigning, a major shift within the reform camp proved pivotal. Aref, on the request of former president Khatami, withdrew in favor of Rouhani, while Rafsanjani and Khatami both anointed him their unity candidate.
Instead of boycotting the election, as originally feared, prominent reformists chose to participate, motivating the disenchanted electorate to rally around Rouhani. Simultaneously, the unification of marginalized reformists and centrists gave them new relevance within the political system. With Rouhani’s victory, the reformists have been afforded a unique opportunity to revive moderate economic, social and foreign policies.
The reformists’ post-2009 political engagement also proved surprising to the Iranian people. After 2009, many believed voting to be a useless exercise in a pre-engineered election. Pre-election polling repeatedly revealed that most voters were undecided. The confluence of the aforementioned events, along with Khamenei’s last-minute appeal to all Iranians to vote, “even those who do not support the regime,” proved essential in mobilizing the general public to go to the polls. In the end, an estimated 72% of eligible voters participated, and they were equally astounded that their votes were accurately reflected in the final tally. The public excitement and enthusiasm evidenced throughout the streets of Iran serves as an important turning point for the Iranian people.
Cautiously watching from the sidelines, the international community was also startled by Rouhani’s victory. After rounds of nuclear negotiations and intensifying sanctions, the P5+1 has been increasingly frustrated by Iran’s uncompromising nuclear position. Rouhani, however, offers the possibility of greater flexibility in future negotiations. Rouhani, like all other candidates, remains committed to the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program. However, his experience and defense of his tenure as nuclear negotiator from 2003 until 2005, during which Iran suspended uranium enrichment, suggests that he will return to more moderate strategies.
For Khamenei, the election also provides him with unity. Rouhani, while not a clear conservative, has a longstanding relationship with the supreme leader. As secretary of the Supreme National Security Council for sixteen years (1989 to 2005), in addition to serving on the Expediency Council, the Assembly of Experts and as National Security Advisor to both Rafsanjani and Khatami, Rouhani has an established record of pragmatism on a number of noteworthy positions. Moreover, as a regime insider he has the potential to build bridges across the polarized spectrum of the political elite.
While Rouhani is by no means a panacea for the Islamic Republic, and his victory cannot erase the memory of 2009, his election does provide a temporary reprieve and opportunity for these important constituencies. Only time will tell if Rouhani can live up to his campaign promises of economic renewal, foreign policy engagement, increased social freedom and nuclear moderation. Until then, the prospect of unity has bought him some much-needed time.