Mehdi Khalaji is a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The recent presidential election in Iran proved that the Islamic Republic’s instinct for self-preservation trumps its ideology. Hassan Rouhani, the current representative of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in the Supreme National Security Council and former head nuclear negotiator, won the election in the first round, a total surprise for both international observers and domestic critics of the regime. Despite his establishment credentials and his status as a cleric, Rouhani was not regarded as Khamenei’s favorite candidate. Saeed Jalili, the chief nuclear negotiator; Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, former chief of the national police and current mayor of Tehran; and Ali Akbar Velayati, former minister of foreign affairs and Khamenei’s advisor on international affairs, were expected to have Khamenei’s support in this election. The nuclear impasse with Iran is by no means over, but at least the Iranian people have shown that they want a change of approach.
Many of those who voted for Rouhani may have thought like political prisoner Emad Bahavar, who said that while Rouhani is no pro-democracy figure, his victory may change the power equation in favor of democracy by weakening the military, political and economic institutions run by Khamenei. Rouhani is solidly in the conservative camp, but he ran a campaign positioning himself as the most moderate person allowed to run.
The main theme of Rouhani’s campaign was his critique of the Islamic Republic’s nuclear policy during the last eight years, which led to a series of U.N, E.U. and U.S. sanctions against Iran. Not only were the business community and private sector deeply damaged by sanctions, but the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’s companies and government businesses also came under unprecedented pressure. The current policy left little hope for peaceful resolution of the nuclear crisis and, because of sanctions, made the impasse the first concern of many Iranian citizens, both urban and rural.
In the televised debates and his campaign, Rouhani has defended the pre-Ahmadinejad nuclear policy, which he ran from 2003 to 2005. He argued that he succeeded in keeping the nuclear program off the U.N. Security Council’s agenda while also preventing a significant interruption to the program. He said that Iran should change its negotiation pattern, assure the West that it is not after a nuclear bomb and save the economy from sanctions, while letting Iran’s peaceful nuclear program proceed. He described the 2003-04 decision to suspend uranium enrichment for a few months as a way for Iran to prove that the nuclear program is for peaceful purposes while at the same time make progress on the enrichment program during the suspension.
Rouhani’s victory can be interpreted as the success of the West’s policy toward Iran’s nuclear program. Since the start of sanctions, many have doubted whether sanctions are useful, and whether they would change Iran’s nuclear policy, but the 2013 election proved that sanctions deeply affected people’s opinions of the government’s policy of resistance rather than compromise. During the campaign, many of the candidates criticized the resistance approach, which was defended only by current nuclear negotiator Jalili. Even Velayati — who has been regarded as an influential advisor to the supreme leader— criticized Jalili in the televised debate,saying Jalili’s policy harmed Iran and produced zero benefit.