“By now it will probably bore you to hear that there is no such thing as a boring presidential election in Iran. But I submit that this is true,” Laura Secor writes in her stirring 2016 book, Children of Paradise: The Struggle for the Soul of Iran. Given the ease, in hindsight, with which Hassan Rouhani won re-election on Saturday as President, it may appear that we finally have an exception to her assertion. Rouhani took 57% of the vote, to his nearest opponent, Ebrahim Raisi’s 38.5%, thus averting the need for a run-off.
This was so obviously Rouhani’s election to lose, that it would have needed a spectacular mistake on his campaign’s part, or an intervention of the sort effected in 2009 to deny Mir Hossein Mousavi the presidency, for him to be denied continuance in office. Rouhani is too experienced a hand, and the Supreme Leader a lot more cautious about provoking protests than Iran’s “deep state” was eight years ago, so everything went as per expectation — without the edginess usually associated with Iranian elections, such as when the reformist Mohammad Khatami won the vote in 1997 and 2001, or when the populist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad defeated the grand old man of Iranian politics, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, in 2005 or when he in fact went on to reportedly steal the vote in 2009. Yet, for all its predictability and lack of drama, the 2017 election could be far more crucial than those in the past.
Supreme Leader’s shoes
For one, speculation is growing about who may succeed Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as Supreme Leader, the most powerful position in the Islamic Republic. In the time since he took over from Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989, Khamenei has presided over a deepening web of security, political and electoral arrangements, so that it is difficult for even the most avid among Iran watchers to precisely locate where exactly power and decision-making rest. It is unclear how much of a role Khamenei may himself play in the near future to identify, if not groom, a successor. It’s interesting that Raisi has often been mentioned as a possible contender; and so has been Rouhani.
But more than the identity of the next Supreme Leader, Rouhani’s second term as President (electoral rules forbid more than two consecutive terms in office) will be watched for the transformations — whether he succeeds, and equally, is allowed to succeed, in bringing about greater ease in Iranian public and personal lives. The personal is political everywhere, but in Iran very prominently so. And as Secor, who also reported extensively for The New Yorker, profiles resistance in Iran, from its feisty bloggers to prisoners of conscience such as Akbar Ganji, she zeroes in on two qualities that define — and interlink in — the lives of its citizens: anxiety and civic spirit.
Could it be, for instance, on Rouhani’s watch as a second-term President that Iran will come to terms with the ghosts of the 2009 Green Movement? Green was the colour of the campaign of the reformist Mousavi — green was the colour of resistance when the Interior Ministry called the election in Ahmadinejad’s favour, giving him more than 60% of the vote, when, as Secor reminds us, “the polls had barely closed”. The streets of Iran erupted with protests, and not just in the posh, liberal confines of north Tehran, as Iranians harnessed the potential of social media and of the old, revolutionary strategies of making a coordinated din from their rooftops at an appointed hour or gathering, flash mob-like, on key dates on the Persian calendar.
Mousavi is still under house arrest, but he endorsed Rouhani. More spectacularly, in a sign that the moderate vote is shot through with the spirit of the Green Movement, campaign rallies in Rouhani’s support would break into chants of “Ya Hossein, Mir Hossein.” Indeed, it is evident that even as Rouhani succeeded in ending Iran’s isolation with the 2015 nuclear deal with, among other global powers, the United States, he did not necessarily have similar success, or power, in easing repression at home. To take one example, in 2015, a court order prohibited the media from publishing even images of Khatami. It’s anyone’s guess whether Rouhani will bring more moral weight to the reformist agenda, and win more of the establishment over to the liberal end of the political spectrum.
But as Secor writes, in a point that explains why Iranian politics is so fascinating, “One of the delicious paradoxes of the Islamic Republic is its seemingly endless capacity to produce internal opposition to its own authoritarianism.” Or as Michael Axworthy noted so grandly in Revolutionary Iran: A History of the Islamic Republic: “A visiting Martian wanting to see the full range of human activity, good and bad, to understand mankind, could well look at Iran as a kind of exploratory course.”