Wrapped in Surprise, Stuffed with Politics

by Arang Keshavarzian | published June 17, 2013 - 3:33pm

Many Iranians are pinching themselves and smiling uncontrollably after Hassan Rowhani’s victory in the June 14 presidential election. The purple-clad campaigners for Rowhani (or Mohammad Reza Aref, who stepped aside for Rowhani a few days before the balloting) still taste the bitterness of 2009, when their call “Where is my vote?” met with the full force of the regime’s security apparatus. They knew that reform-oriented candidates do better when 65 percent or more of eligible voters participate. But on election day the Rowhani backers were justifiably wary that large segments of the electorate would simply stay home, whether because they were convinced that the result was preordained or because they were just tired of unfulfilled promises of hope and change.

In the end, however, some 72 percent of eligible voters, or almost 37 million people, went to the polls, delivering the win to Rowhani in the first round. Some, probably including Rowhani, wish to savor this unlikely outcome, but others have been quick to sound sober and judicious notes, reminding everyone of the Iranian presidency’s limited powers and the herculean tasks ahead. The economy is hamstrung by international sanctions on the oil and banking sectors, as well as ill-conceived social policies that are neither fully executed nor redistributive to the needy. The state apparatus has been gutted over the last eight years: Any semblance of transparency, accountability or meritocracy in its ranks is gone, replaced by a system of political and personal loyalty, including within the Ministry of Intelligence, which handles domestic security matters. The region is being remade by war, revolutionary demands and counter-revolutionary reactions.

Yet the pivot to the inhospitable future is also a means of papering over the incomplete, if not incoherent, analysis leading up to the Islamic Republic’s eleventh presidential elections. The Beltway chatter focused on latter-day Kremlinology -- attempts to decipher the signals of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the so-called Supreme Leader. What did he want? Who was his candidate? (Most settled on Saeed Jalili, who finished third.) How would he engineer the election to guarantee his desired outcome? Thus, with Rowhani prevailing, the pundits have turned to repeating expressions of surprise.

Why the surprise? It is never quite clear what exactly caught all the analysts off guard. Was it that the conservatives in the Islamic Republic -- the so-called principlists -- did not unite behind a single candidate? It should have been clear that the principlists would have difficulty getting their house in order. They have been splintering along various policy and personality lines ever since the presidential race of 2005. The much discussed “2+1 coalition” that brought together conservative heavyweights Mohammad Qalibaf, Gholam Haddad-Adel and Ali Akbar Velayati taught everyone a lesson in arithmetic as all three threw their hat into the ring. (Haddad-Adel withdrew, but only four days before the polls.)

Or was it simply that Rowhani won? If so, why did so many observers discount a man who had the support of leading regime figures, a coalition assembled of erstwhile reformists and technocratic pragmatists, and energetic campaigners in Tehran and smaller towns? It has long been known that elections in the Islamic Republic are not just a one-off event, but also an occasion for citizens to discover each other, express their concerns about state of the country and share their desires for the future. Iranian elections are never entirely staged; they expose the limits of autocratic power as much as they enact the Leader’s will.

Ultimately, the reasons for the experts’ surprise say more about the experts -- their assumptions about Iran and politics writ large -- than about Iranian society. Most have moved on to the next set of prognostications. What will Rowhani’s win mean for Iran’s stance in negotiations over its nuclear research program? Will he strike a “grand bargain” with Washington? Will he stop Iranian backing for the regime of Bashar al-Asad? Will he be able to change Iran? Instead, the would-be Nate Silvers ought to pause to ask why Iran surprises them over and over again. The answer lies not in better polling or more journalists or keener parsing of the peculiar ways of Persians, but in a better appreciation of the campaigners and voters on the ground. In trying to read Khamenei’s mind (and, now, Rowhani’s), these analysts betrayed their penchant for psychology and their discomfort with the struggles of an Iranian society that, despite and because of the conditions imposed on it, engineered its own election.