Sunday, June 16, 2013

Iranians want change

To repeat:  It's clear that Iranians want change.  And the kinds of change that most of them want include movement toward a more open society, more freedom, less theocracy, and less confrontation with the west in general and the US in particular.  So far, those are the only indisputable conclusions one can draw from the surprise victory of Hassan Rohani (or Rowhani or Rouhani) in Friday's presidential election.  And they accord with larger tendencies that have been clear since at least the mid-1990s.  Whenever Iranians have been given even half a chance to vote against the status quo, even under difficult and restricted conditions, most of them have done so.

To try to understand the meaning and implications of these elections, one always has to bear in mind the peculiar hybrid character of the Iranian regime established by the Khomeinists after the 1979 revolution.  It's a fundamentally authoritarian regime, ultimately controlled by hard-line theocratic ideologues, and that's the essential starting-point.  But it has a complex dual structure.  It has an un-elected and straightforwardly theocratic component, headed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and buttressed by institutions like the Revolutionary Guards (who are not only a major military force, on a par with the regular armed forces, but also control much of the economy) and the paramilitary basij militia.  But it also has an elective component featuring all the standard elements of quasi-democratic representative government, including an elected President and Parliament, elected local governments, universal suffrage (including women and religious minorities, though they are excluded from some important offices), and so on.  The trick is that the un-elected theocratic component controls all the ultimate levers of power—including the judiciary, the military, the security services, the police, foreign affairs, and so on.  The theocratic component of the regime also intervenes extensively in the representative part of the system.  For example, the Guardian Council can veto any legislation, or exclude any election candidates, that it deems insufficiently "Islamic"—and it has done so very extensively over the years, though often in variable and unpredictable ways.

The tensions built into this hybrid regime structure, in a situation where the ruling elite has lost its legitimacy among much of the population and there are also splits within the ruling elite, help explain the odd reality that Iranian presidential elections are unfair, restricted, heavily manipulated—but nevertheless often unpredictable.

From 1997 through 2005 reformists led by (the reformist cleric) President Mohammed Khatami won repeated election victories, giving rise to hopes (or illusions) that there could be serious positive changes within the framework of the system.  But the reformists were were blocked, harassed, and eventually shut down by the hard-liners.  In 2005 the hard-line establishment stopped pussyfooting around, suppressed the reformists, disqualified reformist candidates across the board, and engineered the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as President.  But it is often forgotten that when Ahmadinejad was first elected, he also presented himself as a candidate of change.  The main candidate he defeated, former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, was generally perceived as the establishment candidate, the very epitome of the corrupt clerico-kleptocratic elite.  By contrast, Ahmadinejad looked to many like a protest candidate.  But unlike the reformists, the alternative to the status quo offered by Ahmadinejad and his backers was a revitalization of the Islamic Republic by a return to its roots in revolutionary radicalism.  (One indication of the increasing narrowing of the ruling elite over time is that in the 2013 election Rafsanjani, who tried to run as a presidential candidate, was himself disqualified by the Guardian Council.  Nowadays, the hard-liners consider Rafsanjani an Iranian equivalent of an American RINO.)  Given that the reformists were suppressed and demoralized, Ahmadinejad represented the only kind of change available on the ballot in 2005, and Ahmadinejad undoubtedly got a lot of votes on that basis (though there was probably also some vote-rigging involved in his victory—Rafsanjani clearly thought so).

By 2009, though Ahmadinejad still had some genuine support, it was clear to most Iranians that this was not the kind of change they could believe in.  And the hard-liners discovered that, to their shock, as the election results started to come in.  So they had to resort to blatantly stealing the 2009 election, by massively cooking the voting figures, in order to prevent the victory of Mir Hossein Moussavi.  That provoked an explosion of protest by defrauded Iranian voters that greatly embarrassed the ruling elite.  (And since then the two reformist candidates from 2009, Moussavi and Karroubi, have been under house arrest.)

This time around, we can actually see the same basic pattern in the voting, except that this time they counted the votes. Rohani, it should be emphasized, was not really a candidate of the reformist camp.  But most of the other candidates were hard-core hard-liners, differing only in their degrees of extremism, and by contrast Rohani emerged as by far the most "moderate" candidate.  During the campaign he also reached out to the reformists by calling for policies like reduced censorship and the release of political prisoners, as well as criticizing the counter-productive intransigence displayed by the Iranian government in international negotiations over Iran's nuclear program.  (These criticisms seem to have been mostly about tactical incompetence, without directly addressing the goals of the nuclear program itself; but the public airing of such criticism by Rohani, himself a former nuclear negotiator during the Khatami era, was startling in itself.)  After the only other non-hard-line candidate withdrew from the race, Rohani emerged as the default candidate for all voters critical of existing policies and of the existing system more generally.  That role was reinforced when Rohani was publicly endorsed by Khatami and Rafsanjani.

And Rohani won, taking an outright majority of the votes in the first round and greatly out-polling any of the individual hard-line candidates.  All the available information seems to suggest that everyone was surprised by this outcome, including Khamenei and the hard-line establishment.  So why did they let Rohani win, and not steal the election the way they did in 2009?

That's a tricky question, about which one can only speculate.  It may be that Khamenei & Co. regard Rohani as less threatening than Moussavi.  It may also be that Khamenei was eager to avoid a replay of the 2009 debacle, which would only reinforce and harden popular cynicism about the Iranian regime.  It does seem clear that, despite everything, the ruling elite continues to regard the elective component of the system, and sense of participation that Iranians get from the rituals of voting, as important elements in maintaining the system's legitimacy.  Or it may be that splits within the ruling elite (it's worth noting that one of Ahmadinejad's close advisers was also disqualified by the Guardian Council) would have made a major vote-rigging exercise like the one in 2009 harder to pull off efficiently.  Or perhaps some combination of all those factors?  As I said, so far we can only speculate.

The practical implications of Rohani's election also remain to be seen.  They might be significant, within limits, in terms of both tone and substance.  But they might not be terribly significant.  Again, one always has to bear in mind that whoever wins elections in Iran, the hard-line theocratic establishment continues to control the crucial levers of power, and they have shown themselves willing to use those levers.  Also, Rohani himself is fundamentally a man of the system—but then so was Moussavi, and he wound up surprising everyone, probably including himself.

=> In the meantime, though, it's important to emphasize the crucial message of this election.  Most Iranians want change.  And the kinds of change that a majority of Iranians want point in the direction of more freedom, more democracy, less theocracy, less extremism, and less international isolation.  From a long-term perspective, that strikes me as extremely important.

In fact, I feel emboldened to revisit some observations I offered in 2004, when the previous effort at political "reform" within the system, headed by then-President Mohammed Khatami, was collapsing in the face of massive obstruction and increasing repression by the hard-liners (The Iranian Dubcek bows out):
In retrospect, the Khatami experiment, beginning in 1997, will almost certainly be seen as the last shot at reforming and democratizing the system from within (like the Prague Spring of 1968). It was tried, and it failed.

What happens next is less clear. Like the eastern European regimes during the 1980s, the Iranian regime seems to have decisively lost its legitimacy and support among the great majority of Iranians. But historical analogies are rarely exact. By the 1980s, the eastern European elites (with some very rare exceptions) didn't really believe in the system either, had become cynical and demoralized, and collapsed fairly rapidly when they were challenged. Unlike those regimes, the Iranian regime still commands the loyalty of a sizable hard core who are committed to it from genuine ideological belief and/or from materialistic motives, and who seem willing to use as much violence as it takes to crush opposition. I suspect this means that Iran can look forward to an indefinite period of very unstable political equilibrium, probably marked by increasing repression as well as potentially dangerous efforts by the ruling elite to build up support through nuclear brinksmanship and other types of foreign-policy adventurism.

Or maybe not. After all, when Solidarity was suppressed in Poland in 1981, almost no sane person imagined that the whole edifice of eastern European post-Stalinist state socialism would come crashing down a decade later. History is unpredictable. And Iran remains one of the very few countries in the Middle East where, if the current regime collapsed tomorrow, it's plausible that it would NOT be replaced with an even worse regime. In fact, I think we could still see an Iranian 1989 ... sometime down the road.
In one sense, my impressions back in 2004 seem to have been incorrect, or at least premature.  Various developments in Iran over the past decade, including the presidential elections of 2009 and 2013, suggest that widespread hopes for reform within the system are still alive, despite repeated disappointments and ongoing repression.  But my basic long-term prognosis still strikes me as plausible—and that represents one of the few reasons for feeling hopeful about broader prospects for the Middle East.

I continue to believe that there is a real possibility that at some point in the future Iranians can succeed in achieving their own, distinctively Iranian, version of 1989.  (I'm referring to the revolutions of 1989 in East/Central Europe, of course, not Tienanmen.)  However, that will be the outcome of a long-term process, which offers no solutions for immediate problems and crises. Until then, for those of us outside Iran, the key tasks will be to contain the damage that the Iranian regime can cause (and to make every effort to keep it from getting nuclear weapons, while also trying to avoid a disastrous war).  But it is important to bear in mind that the Iranian people, as distinct from the lunatics currently ruling them, are basically on the right side.  They mostly want a better social and political order than the one they now have—not an even more awful one, like publics in some other countries—and they deserve the greatest possible sympathy, support, and encouragement from the rest of us.

=>  With respect to Friday's election and Rohani's election, the piece piece below by Scott Peterson, long-time Middle East reporter for the Christian Science Monitor, provides an informative overview along with a useful round-up of some immediate reactions and analyses.  I find some of those reactions perceptive and illuminating, others less convincing ... but that only underlines the key point, which is that we're all in the business of informed speculation at this point.  Stay tuned.

—Jeff Weintraub

Christian Science Monitor
June 15, 2013
Hassan Rohani is Iran's next president. What will change?
Political moderate Hassan Rohani defeated a host of conservative challengers to win Iran's presidency. His style is a sharp contrast with that of outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

By Scott Peterson

Politically moderate cleric Hassan Rohani won a first-round victory in Iran’s presidential election, a stunning result that heralds change – both in tone, and almost certainly in substance – for the Islamic Republic.

Mr. Rohani, a former nuclear negotiator, polled three times as many votes as his nearest rival to garner 50.71 percent of all ballots cast, enough to avoid an expected runoff. He faced down a host of conservatives in Friday’s vote, stating at the ballot box that he had “come to destroy extremism.”

Rohani built his campaign around promises to ease Iran’s tensions with the West, end international sanctions, allow greater freedom of the press and reduce government interference in private lives. Ahead of the vote many said that Rohani’s candidacy was little more than window dressing, permitted by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to boost turnout among disillusioned Iranians and erase memories of the violent, fraud-tainted 2009 election.

But with the cleric now officially Iran's president-elect, after capitalizing on discontent within the electorate and divisions in the conservative camp, Khamenei may be as surprised as anyone about the result. The surge for Rohani began just 72 hours before the vote – fueled by endorsements from former presidents Mohammad Khatami and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani – and has now shocked Khamenei and the rest of the conservative establishment.

There is shock, too, for all those Iranians who planned to boycott the election because they considered their votes “useless” in a rigged system, yet voted anyway – pushing official turnout to roughly 72 percent – and found their choice accurately reflected in the result.

“The Climax of a Political Epic – World was Stunned Again,” proclaimed the hardline Kayhan newspaper. One Iranian Tweet distilled the surprise: “Four years ago today we were on the street in disbelief, chanting ‘Where is my vote?’ This is a different kind of disbelief.”

Khamenei had called for a large turnout to defeat Iran’s “enemies,” and to restore legitimacy to an Islamic system tarnished by Iran's fraud-tainted 2009 election, which brought millions of Iranians to the streets in weeks of protest that were violently crushed amid chants of “Death to the Dictator!”

Iranian pendulum

“What we are seeing is a swing of the pendulum, with a clear understanding of what happened before,” says Farideh Farhi, an Iran expert at the University of Hawaii. Critical was the ability of Mr. Khatami and Mr. Rafsanjani to work together, “prodded by…the rank and file in the provinces” to do something “no matter how flawed [the election] is."

“Once they became convinced that conservative forces have a stake in running an adequately fair election – a proper election, in terms of its mechanism – then the game became extremely political and strategic. It worked, and one has to give kudos to two former presidents who now are leaders of the country, because they have proven they can mobilize voters,” she says.

In the months prior to the vote, the regime insisted that the “sedition” of 2009 would not be repeated. Journalists were arrested or harassed months ago. Revolutionary Guard commanders issued warnings against interference at home and abroad.

The 686 people who registered to run were whittled down to just eight candidates by the Guardian Council, which disqualified Rafsanjani as well as the chosen successor of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose second term ends in August.

Khamenei and other elements of the ruling system made clear their preference that one of the six hardline contenders should win. Among them are the popular Tehran mayor Mahammed Baqr Qalibaf and current nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili. Against such well-known opponents close to the Supreme Leader, Rohani was given little hope.

But events combined to provide the “hope” and “prudence” that were the catchwords of his campaign. Conservatives were divided, their votes split among themselves. And after a third televised debate – in which Rohani claimed he had “never lied” to the Iranian people – fellow reformist candidate Mohammad Reza Aref withdrew from the race. High-profile endorsements began to pile-up and Rohani began to ride the crest of a popular surge.

“We are seeing again that the Islamic Republic is a wizard at turning the elections into an event, and always provides us with a surprise,” says a mother in Tehran, who had vowed not to cast a "worthless" vote before the election.

Today she marvels that the vote count was “so measured and meticulous” compared to 2009, and quipped that her “jaw is hurting from repeated falling motion, chest getting bruised... this election is merely an indication that maybe the Leader is feeling less bloody-minded after learning a hard lesson through his selection of Ahmadinejad [in 2005 and 2009] and is now ready to be more pragmatic to save the Islamic system."

Hardliners and blame

Hardliners did not blame Khamenei for the result, but in some cases themselves. An editorial today in Tabnak, which is run by candidate and former Revolutionary Guard commander Mohsen Rezaei, explained the loss under the headline: “Why is defeat necessary?"

“People of Iran said no to fundamentalists because they were unhappy about the way the country was being managed and were hurt because of it,” Tabnak said. Iranians wanted a president who “does not only chant slogans inside and outside Iran and bring fundamentally negative changes to their lives.”

Votes were counted far more slowly than in 2009, when complete results were published by a semi-official news agency while the polls were still open, then taken down only to be re-posted with precisely the same numbers later.

The reformist candidates in that election, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, leaders of the so-called Green Movement who challenged the 2009 result and Khamenei, remain under house arrest in Tehran. The Supreme Leader said today’s result would help overcome the ghosts of 2009. Khamenei did not speak as ballots were being counted, but his office tweeted: “In 2009 was same excitement but w/ insults; this election has no disrespect. It’s valuable that we’ve progressed so much in 4 years.”

In another tweet, Khamenei said: “2009 unrests were all about to hurt [popular] base of Revolution while West propagandized 'people lost confidence.' No! People & System got mutual confidence.”

Rafsanjani appears to agree with him. Iranian media quoted the former president today saying it was the “most democratic election in the world and there are not flaws in the election.”

Gracious in victory and defeat

Overnight all six candidates issued a joint statement calling on their supporters not to demonstrate or make celebrations until the results were out. By late afternoon, Rohani had called on his supporters not to “gather against the law,” and that any gathering would only be after official announcements and with legal permission.

“If this result stands, the Western narrative stating that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the [Revolutionary Guard] are all-powerful needs to be revisited,” wrote Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, in an analysis from Washington. “Though hardliners remain in control of key aspects of Iran’s political system, the centrists and reformists have proven that even when the cards are stacked against them, they can still prevail due to their support among the population."

Mr. Parsi wrote that “Rohani will likely try to move to the middle now and be a unifying president.”

As voting was extended by five hours on Friday, there were noticeable differences compared to 2009. State TV channel IRIB broadcast that candidate representatives were allowed to stay in polling stations until the counting was done. The head of the election headquarters Seyed Solat Mortazavi last night said he would look into reports of Jalili campaign material being distributed at polling stations and “we will confront such behavior.” Journalists were not kicked out of the Interior Ministry as results were coming in, as they were in 2009.

“Now because people are so shocked, they think that Mr. Khamenei has planned all these things to reinvent the Islamic system,” says Farhi in Hawaii. Instead, the results illustrate that there is “real politics going on [across] contested political terrain” in Iran, which shows the limits of Khamenei’s ability to shape events. “The Islamic Republic has developed so many competing institutions, and competing political forces” that the consolidation of conservatives since 2005 was not likely to last, says Farhi.

“The policies of the last eight years so clearly failed, in terms of improving the lot of the Iranian population, that now there is an adjustment. If it didn’t happen, then there was something wrong.”

Yet Khamenei would have been as surprised as any at the Rohani victory. “[Khamenei] is the leader who made the decision in 2009 to come out and say publicly that his views are closer to Ahmadinejad. He identified himself not as the father of the nation, but as player in these things,” adds Farhi. “So he is paying for that political mistake,” she says. “Does this mean that he’s going to disappear, and the office of the Leader is not going to be powerful anymore? Absolutely not.”