ATbar Iran - Whose is Hassan Rowhani’s Victory?
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Iran - Whose is Hassan Rowhani’s Victory?

25/06/2012 | by Karmon, Ely (Dr.)  

Many observers consider Hassan Rowhani's victory in the June 14 elections a defeat for Spiritual Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. I have a different take on it.

The Iranian conservative leadership is scared to death by the possible impact on the Iranian people of the Arab and especially Syrian uprisings. Khamenei most probably had in-depth pre-electoral polls showing the real mood of the Iranian electorate.

Thus, the funeral for dissident Ayatollah Jalaluddin Taheri in Isfahan only 10 days ahead of the presidential elections turned into anti-government protest when tens of thousands took to the streets chanting “death to the dictator” – a reference to Khamenei.

Therefore, it seems Rowhani's victory was the best fallback position for the Spiritual Leader, providing a minimum of legitimacy to the theocratic regime and a safety valve for the public ire.

Otherwise it is difficult to understand how Khamenei approved the candidacy of five conservative candidates, thus dividing the votes of his own camp's supporters but left Rowhani alone in the race as a leading "moderate" after ex-President Rafsanjani, another "moderate", was rejected by the Guardian Council. Rafsanjani naturally asked his supporters to vote for Rowhani.

Actually, the real victor was the Iranian people, who fervently wanted a deep change in the regime's nature, preferably through the peaceful electoral process, taking in consideration the existing political constraints and the threat of Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Basij retaliation (Iranian police arrested several people calling for the release of Mir Hossein Mousavi after Rowhani delivered a speech on June 1, imposing "ideological limitations" on the race).

During Rowhani's supporters manifestations people chanted slogans referring to the difficult economic situation but made also several important political demands: liberation of the imprisoned leaders and activists of the June 2009 Green Movement uprising and opposition to Iran's intervention in Lebanon and Gaza.

The history of President Mohammad Khatami's presidency since his election in May 1997 is a case study which can give some clues as to Rowhani's chances of advancing major changes in the Iranian internal political and economic sphere, supposing he really intends to do it.

Khatami, who was elected at the time with the support of part of the IRGC high level officials, tried to establish a policy of reforms and made some changes in key personnel, removing the feared Minister of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) Ali Fallahian.

But Khatami had no legal authority over key state institutions: the armed forces, the police, the army, the revolutionary guards, the state radio and television, the prisons, etc. Thus, the conservative opposition went on the attack using key institutions it controlled: the Majlis, the intelligence agencies and the judiciary.

Tehran mayor Gholam-Hosein Karbaschi was arrested in April 1998 on transparently political charges of corruption. Abdallah Nuri, a foremost moderate, a politician and cleric with a long history of service to the Islamic Republic, nominated by Khatami minister of interior, became the most senior Islamic politician since the Iranian Revolution who was sentenced to five years in prison for political and religious dissent in 1999.

A chain murder of Iranian intellectuals was perpetrated by the regime in the late Nineties. Authorities at the time blamed the gruesome murders on "rogue agents" from MOIS. The agents who were allegedly involved in the killings were tried behind closed doors, in what was widely seen as a whitewash by the theocratic regime.

Khatami promised to stop all terrorist activities against Arab countries and end its support for Islamic terrorist organizations. Moreover, he sent President Clinton a message vowing that Iran would no longer support terrorist groups that oppose Arab-Israeli negotiations and would respect any Palestinian decision concerning a peace agreement with Israel. However, the flow of weapons to Hezbollah continued apace, and so the funds and military training to Palestinian terrorist groups.1

Khatami lost most of his clashes with the hardline and conservative Islamists in the Iranian government and by the end of his presidency many of his followers had grown disillusioned with him.

Hojatoleslam Rowhani, which for three decades was part and parcel of the Iranian Islamic political and security establishment, will have to fight against three powerful forces: the IRGC, which has become the most important force securing the regime, but has also huge economic vested interests; a radical Majlis elected in March 2012; and the remnants of President Ahmadinejad's supporters in the administration who can still try to give a fight for survival.

The result of the March 2012 Majlis election was the success of two radical factions in parliament: the old generation of conservatives and a new generation of hardliners led by Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi with strong ties to the intelligence community and the IRGC. Yazdi, once considered the spiritual mentor of Ahmadinejad, endorsed Saeed Jalili as "the best candidate that represents the Islamic values." He called candidate Hassan Rowhani "an ignorant politician".and criticized his approach to restoring relations with the U.S.2

Thomas Erdbrink, one of the few Western reporters accredited for U.S. media in Iran, claimed in The New York Times, like many other analysts, that for the West "Rowhani’s election means a possible new opportunity for the long-stalled nuclear talks," stressing the fact that Rowhani was Iran’s nuclear negotiator in 2004, "when Iran agreed to voluntary suspension of uranium enrichment," suspension reversed during Ahmadinejad’s presidency and Rowhani replacement with Saeed Jalili.3

Several days later, Seyed Hossein Mousavian, Rowhani’s deputy in the 2003 - 2005 nuclear talks, and Mohammad Ali Shabani, who conducted research at Rowhani’s think tank Center For Strategic Research, argued in The New York Times that "Rowhani’s victory demonstrates that there is now real momentum toward the initiation of direct talks between Iran and the United States" and he is "now seeking to resolve the nuclear issue once and for all." They claim that in Tehran there is a sense of optimism about the nuclear issue after the "new president has won a clear popular mandate" and "there is a growing perception that Iran has the long-sought upper hand." Rowhani’s background as the supreme leader’s longtime personal representative to the Supreme National Security Council is evidence of a new era of national cohesion and the "perception of strength could spur Iran to seriously enter nuclear negotiations" and could lead Iran’s rulers making "the concessions necessary to break the stalemate."4

However, the suspension of uranium enrichment and the military aspects of the nuclear project in 2003 was rather a tactical move decided by the Iranian highest authority, the Supreme Leader Khamenei, on the background of the United States' occupation of Iraq in March 2003 and the fear that Iran would be the next target of President Bush in the battle against the "axis of evil." The suspension decision was also influenced by the international revelations about Iran's nuclear energy program and adoption of a strongly-worded resolution by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the threat to move the issue at the UN Security Council.

Rowhani's role as Tehran's chief negotiator with the EU-3 (Britain, France and Germany) since his nomination in October 2003 was to achieve Iran’s ultimate nuclear goals. He later boasted: "While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the [nuclear conversion] facility in Isfahan. By creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work there.”5

A new private research from the Israel National Defense College by Yehuda Ya’akov, a Foreign Ministry specialist on political-military affairs, reveals that, beyond Rowhani's admission that he exploited diplomacy to advance his country’s nuclear program, he made clear during an address to the Iranian parliament in 2004 that he viewed Pakistan as a role model for his country’s effort to master the nuclear fuel cycle in the face of world opposition.6

The Iranian prudent strategy in face of the international pressure ended when it became clear that the United States and its allies were apparently losing the war in Iraq and became involved in a fierce fight against a growing Sunni as well as Shia radical Islamist insurgency.

In April 2004, on the first “anniversary of the defeat of the Ba’th Party in Iraq and the so-called victory of the Americans,” Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani made a long speech on the subject of “the gains of the Islamic revolution” and “focused on what the Americans have done, what they have achieved so far, what will happen in the future, what are their problems, and what are their strengths.”7

According to Rafsanjani’s analysis at the time, the American top priority "to encircle Iran and weaken and destroy Iran’s Islamic revolution" was thwarted by no less than “37 problems that the Americans were facing" after the occupation of Iraq.

America’s dilemma is taking the final intractable decision: to stay in Iraq or to leave. For Rafsanjani it was obvious “that this situation is an opportunity as well as a threat.” America has become vulnerable, which means Iran is becoming stronger.

This evaluation by the “pragmatic” former president of Iran, only one year after the occupation of Iraq, explains Tehran's sequential strategy concerning the nuclear issue and regional conflicts and its defiant attitude in its confrontation with the United States, Europe, and the UN.

President Rowhani will face enormous difficulties in implementing his promises to "follow the path of moderation and justice, not extremism,'' of greater rights and freedoms and improvement in the staggering economic situation. Much of the economic woes depend on the international sanctions, which are directly connected with the outcome of the talks on the nuclear file.

It remains to be seen if the United States and Europe leaders will give Rowhani, and Khamenei, the necessary respite and concessions for the achievement of a nuclear deal, which based on historical experience, will actually be a new strategic victory for the Tehran regime.

The problem for the leaders of the Islamic Republic is that continuous economic hardships, lack of quick reforms in the human rights field and the growing military involvement in the Syrian quagmire, could not match the timetable of the nuclear negotiations. Military setbacks in Syria, the possible fall of the Assad regime and the feeling that Rowhani's election has not delivered the expected goods could convince the Iranian people that time has come to overcome the fears of repression and adopt the option of a popular uprising, like in 2009, but with a clearer anti-regime strategy.


[7] “Rafsanjani Sees Iraq Situation as Opportunity to Teach America a Lesson. First Friday prayer sermon by Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani at Tehran University campus,” Tehran Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran Radio, FBIS Document No. FBIS-NES-2004-0409, April 9, 2004.