Hassan Rouhani’s victory in the presidential election has prompted discussion about where Iran is going. Sean Ledwith explains

Hassan Rouhani

Hassan Rouhani, a very moderate leader of the purple reform movement, surged to a comfortable first-round win over his conservative rivals in Iran’s elections. He took over 50% on a 72% turnout. The nearest pro-government Principalist candidate, Mohammad Ghalibaf, could only muster 16%, while Saeed Jalili – first choice of much of the ruling class – was humiliated with 11%.

The Guardian described the post-election scenes in Tehran:

‘Minutes after he was announced as the winner, thousands of jubilant campaigners and people across Iran poured into streets to celebrate. “Ahmadi Bye Bye”, chanted a large group in central Tehran, according to witnesses, in a reference to Ahmadinejad. Car horns were honking in larger streets in Tehran and Rouhani supporters chanted.’

Rouhani had little prospect of making such an impact until two events changed the dynamic of the campaign in its last week. One was the decision of the other reformist candidate, Mohammad Aref, to withdraw in order to avoid splitting the anti-Principalist vote. The other was the explicit backing given to Rouhani by two former Presidents associated with the reform movement – Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami. These developments galvanised opposition voters, many of whom up to that point had been considering a boycott of the vote.

This proposed tactic was a response to the outcry that followed the 2009 election, in which the reformists argued they were denied victory by vote-rigging. The unrest that followed in June of that year provoked a government clampdown that left dozens dead and crippled the reform movement. The immediate acceptance of this year’s result by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is an indication that the ruling class have calculated that this form of repression is currently not an option.

Background to the election

The Iranian economy has been squeezed by Western sanctions throughout the leadership of outgoing President, Mohammad Ahmadinejad. The rial, the national currency, has seen its value halved over the last year and inflation is running at 30%, according the government’s probable under-estimate.

There was significant unrest in Tehran over economic austerity last October and the ruling clique will be anxious to avoid giving sections of the opposition another reason to take to the streets.

The International Labour Organisation suggested last year that youth unemployment in Iran could be as much as 50%.

70% of Iran’s population of 75 million is under 30. This demographic block proved to be the backbone of Rouhani’s electoral surge. This is the age group that has driven the popular uprisings against unpopular governments in other parts of the Middle East (and north Africa) in the recent past.

The 2013 generation of young voters utilised social media on a mass scale to thwart a repeat of the electoral manipulation of four years earlier. One Iranian blogger reported from the city of Mashad:

“I recorded a video last night from this spontaneous demonstration of the youth supporting Rouhani.Believe me that even the people in his campaign headquarters couldn’t predict that so many people would join!”

A moderate reformist

Ali Khamenei has been Supreme Leader for over two decades and has accumulated enough political guile to judge this is not a suitable moment to risk triggering another uprising on the scale of 2009. It is also likely Khamenei and the ruling Guardian Council underestimated the impact the Rouhani campaign would create.

They will be re-assured, however, that Rouhani is a political insider and does not represent any explicit threat to the status quo. Like the other six presidential contenders, he had to be vetted by the Council for compliance to the regime before his candidature was accepted. Up to this point, he has been a loyal functionary of the established order, serving as parliamentary deputy speaker and head of a top advisory body to the Supreme Leader.

Even if the Iranian elite have concerns about Houlani’s political reliability, they will not forget the constitution gives ultimate executive authority to the Supreme Leader, not the President.

The direction of Iranian politics also needs to be considered in an international context. The Western imperialist powers incongruously chose the same weekend as Rouhani’s victory to ratchet up the threat to neighbouring Syria.

Syria is Iran’s key ally in the region and outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been unambiguous in both political and military support for the besieged Syrian regime. The West’s dangerous – and escalating – mission creep in Syria threatens to be a prelude to an attack on Iran itself.

Western politicians cynically welcomed Rouhani’s election, in order to pose as supporters of democracy in the Middle East and in the hope that he will be more friendly to Western interests than his predecessor. Iran remains the principal obstacle to the US, Israel and their allies dominating the Middle East. It would be a mistake for pro-reform forces inside the country to see those states as allies.

Disappointed expectations

There is no doubt Rouhani’s victory has raised the spirits of the opposition in Iran. However, it should be recalled that he is not the first reformist to attain the Presidency. The two men whose backing swung the campaign for him – Rafsanjani and Khatami – are both previous incumbents.

They each came to power amid similar scenes of expectation, only to leave their supporters disillusioned a few years later. The latter came to power in 1997, yet only two years later was gunning down students in Tehran.

A similar fate could await those Iranians who are waving purple flags today. The best hope in Iran lies in the development of independent activism by students and workers based on change from below, not merely above, allied to principled anti-imperialism.

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters

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