Iranians aren’t wrong to celebrate the presidential victory of Hassan Rouhani. It is a (small) thumb in the eye of the country’s clerical ruler, Ali Khamenei. Leaving aside foreign affairs and the nuclear issue for a moment, everyone should take some joy from controlled elections that still deliver surprises. The Islamic Revolution put into permanent tension two irreconcilable forces: theocracy and democracy. Although the regime has rigged balloting before, it doesn’t like to do so. It wants to believe that Iranians will vote the way “good Muslims” should, which is the way the supreme leader wants them to.
Rouhani was for years the all-purpose factotum—the inside fixer—for Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, former majordomo of the political clergy and right-hand man of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic’s founder. Without Rafsanjani, Khamenei would never have succeeded Khomeini. Since the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the presidency in 2005, Rafsanjani has been in a very difficult relationship with Khamenei, who allowed Ahmadinejad, a man with a real bugaboo about corrupt mullahs, to torment relentlessly the great political maestro. The volcanic disputed presidential election of 2009, when the pro-democracy Green Movement rose up and was beaten down, left Rafsanjani prostrate before the supreme leader.
Rafsanjani isn’t a beloved national figure. Ahmadinejad cleaned his clock in the 2005 presidential contest. But in the Islamic Republic, where small political differences are the engines of hope, a vote for the former servant of my enemy’s enemy was the best ballot an angry Iranian could cast in 2013. Rouhani was the only candidate whose triumph could’ve been construed as an expression of disapproval of the supreme leader’s increasingly tyrannical reign.
During the campaign, Rouhani called for the release of the former leaders of the Green Movement, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi, both under house arrest. He vaguely wrapped himself in the sensibilities and civility of their cause—without endorsing their main demand, free elections. Even folks who supported Khamenei in the brutal crackdown in 2009 have bemoaned how nasty politics has become. Founding fathers of the revolution and their families are no longer safe from the regime’s thugs.
The Islamic Republic has always had three sets of rules for the citizenry: one for the elite, one for the common faithful, and one for dissidents. It’s not surprising that Rouhani by the end of the campaign sounded and looked like Mohammed Khatami, the mild-mannered, always-smiling, reformist cleric who won an earlier surprise victory against the conservative clerical establishment in 1997 and ushered in a brief period of reform and greater civility before Khamenei and his allies crushed the movement.
But the “Rouhani euphoria,” in Tehran and in the West, won’t last long. The election of Khatami introduced real reflection and tumult into the Islamic Republic’s political establishment, in great part because Khatami’s critiques of the revolution, theocracy, the United States, and even the Islamic faith were serious. Khatami may have been a bit of a Caspar Milquetoast personally, but he gathered around him and spearheaded, sometimes unintentionally, a movement of individuals who were serious about changing the system. In a year’s time President Khatami will probably look audacious and true of heart compared with Rouhani.
Remember: Rouhani was allowed to run because—unlike his former patron, who took a stand against Ahmadinejad in 2009—he remained pretty quiet, only occasionally making bleats in favor of “consensus.” The probable truth: Rouhani allied himself with Khamenei four years ago, if not earlier, seeing clearly the collapsing and unreliable power network of his mentor. In the 1990s, when Rafsanjani’s and Khamenei’s allies started to duel, the white-turbaned hope for “pragmatism” proved himself a fickle and increasingly feeble patron. Rouhani, who has intimately watched the great power struggles inside the republic since the death of Khomeini, is no fool. Khamenei kept him on the national security council after Ahmadinejad dumped him in all likelihood because he knew where Rouhani’s real allegiances lay.