Clifton W. Sherrill
Dr. Sherrill is an assistant professor of international relations at Troy University.
Hassan Rouhani's victory in the June 2013 Iranian presidential election surprised many who expected that the Islamic regime's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, would ensure a strong conservative candidate would win. With most candidates — including former President Ali Hashemi Rafsanjani and Esfandiar Mashaie, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's preferred successor — disqualified by the Guardian Council, the approved slate consisted of eight men. Two would subsequently withdraw, leaving a choice among six candidates on election day. Of these, Rouhani was the only candidate who could be described as a moderate. Although it is not surprising that Iranian voters would support Rouhani in this field, the 2009 election had convinced many that the actual votes were irrelevant. Having overseen the consolidation of conservative control of Iran's elective offices, and having warned repeatedly that a "velvet revolution" posed the greatest threat to the regime, Ayatollah Khamenei seemed certain to engineer another conservative win. Therefore, the official announcement that Rouhani had secured an absolute majority of the votes, more than three times the total of any other candidate, to win the election without even a runoff was stunning.
Since coming to office, Rouhani has changed the tone of Iranian foreign policy. Nowhere has this been more apparent than with respect to negotiations over Iran's nuclear program. In late November 2013, Iran reached agreement with the P5+1 on a six-month deal to obtain limited relief from sanctions in exchange for freezing elements of its nuclear program. During this period, the parties are to pursue a permanent resolution to the matter. While assessments vary as to the merits of the November bargain, its conclusion alone is notable. After some delay, the clock on the six-month period began ticking in January 2014, as both sides complied with their initial undertakings. Yet, as the supreme leader has final authority over Iran's foreign policy, there is reason to question whether Rouhani represents a fundamental change or simply a different strategy aimed at the same goals. To help understand this, it is important to consider how Rouhani's election came about. While many have suggested that international sanctions pressured the Islamic regime into permitting a moderate to win, I offer an alternative assessment based on Iran's domestic politics.
The Ahmadinejad era was increasingly destructive for Iran's Islamic regime. The first noncleric since 1981 to hold the presidency, Ahmadinejad represented a new generation of conservatives. Although Ayatollah Khamenei believed Ahmadinejad, a virtual unknown outside of Tehran prior to his 2005 victory, would be easy to control once in office, he was mistaken. By highlighting his service in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) during the Iran-Iraq War, Ahmadinejad played to a base of veterans and rural poor who still believed in the Islamic Revolution but despised the corruption among clerical elites. Thus Ahmadinejad eventually helped fracture the conservative bloc in Iran, leading a new, younger faction of nonclerical conservatives against the entrenched "old-guard."
Ayatollah Khamenei remained supportive of Ahmadinejad in the 2009 presidential election; however, the unprecedented mudslinging in the campaign, including accusations of corruption, lying and incompetence among regime stalwarts, opened the door to criticism of the Islamic regime itself, outraging Khamenei. Electoral fraud resulted in an Ahmadinejad victory, but it also resulted in massive popular protests that were met with violent repression by the IRGC. Unable to backtrack and dispose of Ahmadinejad, Khamenei weathered the storm that severely diminished the Islamic regime's domestic legitimacy. However, by 2011, Ahmadinejad went so far as to directly challenge the authority of Ayatollah Khamenei. This overreach caused his IRGC allies to distance themselves, leaving Ahmadinejad politically isolated. Conversely, after putting down the demonstrations in 2009, the IRGC enjoyed increased political power. Analysts began to write about the possibility of a "creeping military coup d'état" in which the IRGC, already heavily involved in the state's economy, was replacing the clerical elites as the true power in the regime.1
Ayatollah Khamenei approached the 2013 presidential elections seeking to rebuild the regime's legitimacy, ensure clerical supremacy over the IRGC, and unify the conservatives. In the shadow of the Arab Spring, with political violence engulfing regimes in Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad, Khamenei desperately needed to avoid the popular protests that could result from perceptions of electoral fraud. He needed a popular candidate whom reformists would support, who could reunify the conservative factions through their joint opposition — although not so much that they would revolt — and who would enable restoration of the centrality of Islamic, rather than military, rule. In Hojjat al-Islam Hassan Rouhani, a cleric and long-time regime insider with strong defense credentials, but with a public reputation for pragmatism, Khamenei found an ideal candidate.
The Reformist Challenge
The first decade of the Islamic Republic of Iran was dominated by the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88). Although internal violence occurred between the regime and those who rejected the Islamic Revolution, other domestic political differences were largely subordinated to the collective priority of defeating the external adversary. Within months of the war's inconclusive end, the death of the regime's founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, demoralized the nation. Two of Khomeini's chief lieutenants, the mid-level clerics Ali Khamenei and Ali Hashemi Rafsanjani, took the reins of power: Ali Khamenei rose from the presidency to succeed Khomeini as supreme leader, and Rafsanjani became president. Over the next few years, amid questions about his clerical credentials to be supreme leader, Khamenei allowed Rafsanjani to hold the spotlight while Khamenei worked to consolidate his own power behind the scenes. During this period, Rafsanjani focused on rebuilding the country after the devastating war, introducing a measure of pragmatism into the Islamist government. Constitutionally barred from running for a third consecutive term as president, Rafsanjani was succeeded by a surprise winner in the 1997 election, Mohammad Khatami.
A mid-level cleric who had held a number of positions in the regime since its founding, Khatami was among the most liberal of the regime insiders. Upon coming to office, he tried to soften the public face of the regime, relaxing domestic restrictions on speech, dress and freedom of the press, and attempting to reduce international tensions by promoting what he termed a "dialogue of civilizations." The supreme leader initially allowed these reforms, but quickly grew wary that emphasizing the republican, over the Islamic, aspects of the regime could threaten the foundations of the system. Having seen what opening the door to "restructuring" and "new thinking" did to the Soviet Union and its authoritarian counterparts in Eastern Europe, Khamenei sided with conservatives in opposing Khatami's agenda.
With Khamenei's assent, the conservative-dominated security forces, led by the IRGC, cracked down on reformist intellectuals, sparking student protests that were violently quelled. The Guardian Council disqualified numerous reformist candidates from the next Majlis (legislative council) elections, including dozens of sitting members, while also vetoing reformist legislation on the grounds that it conflicted with Islamic principles. Although Khatami was re-elected in 2001, his second term was marked by an inability to enact any significant changes and the popular belief that he had acquiesced to conservative domination. Cowed by the regime's brutality, the Iranian public resigned itself to the status quo and disengaged from politics. With the reformists thus contained and his authority strengthened, Supreme Leader Khamenei looked to establish conservative control of the presidency in the 2005 election.
The Ahmadinejad Era
The 2005 presidential elections presented a choice among the pragmatist former President Rafsanjani; three relative moderates (former Speaker of the Majlis Mehdi Karroubi, former cabinet minister Mostafa Moin, and former Vice President Mohsen Mehralizadeh) and three conservatives (national Law Enforcement Forces head Mohammed Baqr Qalibaf, government official Ali Larijani and Tehran Mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad). After originally disqualifying Moin and Mehralizadeh, the Guardian Council reversed itself at the direction of Khamenei, returning them to the ballot. By reinstating these two moderate candidates, Ayatollah Khamenei ensured that the reformist vote would not just go to Karroubi, but would be split among several candidates. Thus, he engineered a ballot that made it unlikely anyone would receive a majority of the votes, ensuring a run-off between the top two.
Unsurprisingly, the well-connected Rafsanjani led the way with 21 percent of the vote. Ahmadinejad's second-place showing with just over 19 percent of the vote was startling.2 By one report, Ahmadinejad had less than 5 percent support in a poll taken four weeks prior to the election and was still widely unknown just one week prior to the election.3 The run-off eliminated the moderate candidates, forcing reformists — if they chose to vote at all — to choose between the long-time regime insider known as "the shark" and the unknown conservative mayor of Tehran. With a revolutionary lineage equal to that of Khamenei, Rafsanjani represented a potential threat to the supreme leader's power, making Ahmadinejad the Ayatollah's preferred choice.
In the event, Ahmadinejad was elected by a margin of 62 percent to 36 percent, although allegations of voter fraud, intimidation by the IRGC, and counting irregularities were rife.4 After the vote, Karroubi charged that the supreme leader's son, the Guardian Council, and the regime's security forces interfered in the election to support Ahmadinejad.5 Indeed, the Ministry of Interior originally announced a turnout of 57 percent of eligible voters, yet the Guardian Council thereafter claimed it was actually 67 percent, a major difference accounting for nearly 4.7 million votes. These claims foreshadowed the massive voter fraud that would occur four years later; however, at the time, they did not cause major protests among the Iranian electorate.
Using the IRGC and its localized domestic arm, the Basij, for intimidation purposes, along with various other traditional means of fraud such as ballot-box stuffing, Khamenei appears to have ensured the election of Ahmadinejad. By installing in the presidency a relative unknown whom he assumed he would be able to control, Khamenei hoped to complete the consolidation of conservative power in governmental offices.
Ahmadinejad immediately brought a different tone to the presidency, ending the suspension of uranium enrichment, denouncing the West as the implacable enemy of Islam, and denying the Holocaust. He staffed numerous civilian government positions with fellow former IRGC officers, expanding the IRGC's political clout. He promoted his own image as a simple "man of the people," fighting against the stagnation of revolutionary fervor, the accompanying decay of morality, and governmental corruption. This narrative was attractive to the veterans of the Iran-Iraq War and their families, who sought to retain their status in a youthful society increasingly removed from the war experience. It worked likewise in rural areas, where traditional conservative Islamic beliefs were strong, but cynicism about the clerically-run government was rising. Thus, Ahmadinejad helped develop a split within the conservatives, separating the old-guard clerical elites who had founded the revolution from a younger generation of veterans and lay Islamist idealists with uncompromising beliefs.
Recognizing that Ahmadinejad was not the compliant figurehead he had anticipated, Khamenei attempted to check the president over the next three years. He delegated responsibility to the head of the Expediency Council (Rafsanjani) to supervise Ahmadinejad's government, created a new Strategic Committee for Foreign Policy, and demanded that Ahmadinejad comply with Majlis directives. Yet, as supreme leader, Khamenei was loath to admit making a mistake; he defended Ahmadinejad publicly and issued declarations of support, ultimately making clear his backing for Ahmadinejad's re-election effort in 2009.
The 2009 presidential election saw the Guardian Council approve just three challengers to Ahmadinejad: two moderates, Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hussein Mousavi, and one traditional conservative, Mohsen Rezai. Unlike the 2005 campaign, where he had originally been something of a peripheral figure, this time Ahmadinejad was the subject of attack by each of the other candidates. Charging that Ahmadinejad's confrontational style combined with his populist spending policies were to blame for Iran's international isolation and domestic economic troubles, the challengers hammered at Ahmadinejad's record. He responded with blistering personal attacks against not only his electoral opponents, but other regime power brokers such as Rafsanjani and Ali Larijani, thereby captivating the Iranian electorate, which had never seen such open and vicious criticism of regime elites.6 Implicit in the attacks, if Ahmadinejad's accusations of corruption and lying were true, was an assault on the credibility of the Islamist regime. For Khamenei, the public questioning of the regime and the open display of internal bickering were appalling.
Nonetheless, having backed Ahmadinejad, Khamenei could not withdraw his support without further revealing a regime in disarray. Yet, all indications were that Mousavi would win in a landslide. By one account, government polls projected he would win the election over Ahmadinejad by roughly 10 million votes.7 This would be an embarrassment to the supreme leader and, it was feared, would project weakness at a time when Iranian external influence was on the rise. By refusing to yield on its nuclear program, defying U.S. power in Iraq and Afghanistan, rejecting compromise with Israel, and supporting Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Iran had become the standard bearer for many who opposed Western influence. An Ahmadinejad loss would pierce the Islamist veil that masked domestic discontent. Khamenei ensured that he won.
The blatant electoral fraud of 2009 created popular resentment and calls for the result to be overturned. However, the indiscriminate use of violence to break up demonstrations, coupled with accounts of the torture and rape of protesters who had been detained by security forces transformed the uprising. Rather than demanding electoral reforms, protesters began to demand the end of the Islamic system itself, with the unprecedented chants of "Death to Khamenei" echoing at various demonstrations.8 Terrified at the public outcry and seeing the mass protests as mirroring those that brought the regime to power 30 years prior, the supreme leader resolved not to make the same mistakes the shah had. Thus, he denied any wrongdoing while empowering the IRGC to forcibly silence the protesters.9
The IRGC's brutality was effective at ending the protests, yet the imposed calm came at a high cost: widely diminished regime legitimacy. Islamist conservatives who had no qualms about using violence to maintain stability were nonetheless outraged by the evidence of rape. Pragmatists such as Rafsanjani openly questioned the wisdom of the supreme leader's decisions. Reformists were turned into revolutionaries, albeit lacking the leadership and organization to resist. Even senior ayatollahs in the clerical capital of Qom registered their discontent with the regime's actions in creating such instability, as they saw power shifting from the clergy to the military. The only entity to benefit from the 2009 chaos was the IRGC. It now laid claim to having saved the regime, a fact that suggested it also had the power to reverse the decision if it should find it advantageous to do so.
The friction between Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Khamenei's old-guard conservatives continued following the president's re-election. In July 2009, Ahmadinejad ignored private direction from the old guard not to appoint his friend and in-law, Esfandiar Mashaie, as a vice-president, causing Khamenei to publicly rebuke the president and demand Mashaie's ouster.10 Ahmadinejad complied, but then named Mashaie as his chief of staff in a show of disrespect to the supreme leader. The next month, Khamenei's newly appointed head of the judiciary, Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani (brother of Ahmadinejad's critic, Speaker of the Majlis Ali Larijani), fired a close Ahmadinejad ally, Tehran prosecutor Saeed Mortazavi. In 2010, Ahmadinejad attempted to gain more control over foreign policy, a domain dominated by the supreme leader, culminating in Ahmadinejad's firing of Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, the former campaign manager for Ali Larijani's 2005 presidential bid, while Mottaki was on an official trip in Senegal. Having paid a heavy price in Ahmadinejad's re-election, Khamenei chose not to escalate the matter, hoping to avoid the appearance of elite division. This was not to be.
In April 2011, Ahmadinejad demanded the resignation of the minister of intelligence, Heider Moslehi. This time, however, Khamenei stepped in and publicly rescinded the resignation, reinstating Moslehi. Ahmadinejad originally balked at the reinstatement, refusing to invite Moslehi to cabinet meetings and even refusing to attend the meetings himself for over a week. This resulted in a stern public rebuke from both the Majlis and senior regime clerics, reminding him of his subordinate status to the supreme leader. Shortly thereafter, the Guardian Council rejected Ahmadinejad's bid to name himself acting oil minister, widening the increasingly public divide between the president and the clerics. Ali Larijani exploited the break by ushering through a 165-1 vote in the Majlis referring Ahmadinejad to the judiciary for attempting to usurp authority. Ahmadinejad subsequently backtracked, accepting Moslehi's return and naming a new oil minister, but the damage this time was permanent. Both the IRGC and several previous supporters distanced themselves from Ahmadinejad. Old-guard conservatives began to target his allies, ousting Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammed Sharif Malekzadeh and, later, the president's press adviser, the head of the Islamic Republic News Agency, Ali Akbar Javanfekr. A massive banking scandal broke in August 2011, resulting in reciprocal charges of involvement by Ahmadinejad and his old-guard critics.
Frustrated by the bickering, Supreme Leader Khamenei thereafter suggested that he might abolish the presidency and establish a parliamentary system in Iran. In early 2012, Ahmadinejad became the first president ever summoned by the Majlis for formal questioning. When the president had his old ally Saeed Mortazavi appointed to a position in the Labor Ministry, the Majlis had Mortazavi removed, then impeached and ousted the labor minister, Abdolreza Sheikholeslami, for making the appointment. In turn, Ahmadinejad had the new Tehran prosecutor file charges of corruption against Javad Larijani, brother of Ali and Sadegh. As the feud continued, Supreme Leader Khamenei directed both parties to cease such public displays, insisting that failure to do so was treasonous. Nonetheless, in 2013, Ahmadinejad publicly accused yet a fourth Larijani brother, Fazel, of attempting to bribe Mortazavi, after which Mortazavi was immediately arrested, presumably at the behest of the judiciary head, Sadegh Larijani. Again, the supreme leader rebuked the parties, exhorting all Iranians to come together in the face of external adversaries.
By 2013, the divisions among conservatives had replaced the conservative-reformist split as the most publicized domestic political battle in Iran. To be sure, the differences between reformists and conservatives remained. The regime continued to persecute reformist leaders, keeping both Mousavi and Karroubi under house arrest and sentencing a handful of election protesters to death and dozens more to lengthy prison sentences. Yet, for Khamenei, the fracturing of the conservatives and the attendant elevation of the IRGC into an increasingly political role presented new and equally dangerous threats to the regime.
The 2013 Presidential Election
With the 2013 presidential election approaching, Iran faced a multitude of problems both abroad and at home. It's primary state ally, Syria, was enveloped in a civil war that had cost 100,000 lives and threatened to escalate beyond Syria's borders. The Iranian proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah, was losing hard-earned popular support at home as it committed fighters to Syria on behalf of the Assad regime.11 Violence was again on the upswing in Iraq, threatening the stability of the Iranian-supported Shia government in Baghdad.12 No progress was being made in resolving the nuclear issue, leading to greater concerns over a potential Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. Meanwhile, stringent sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union were dramatically affecting the Iranian economy. Inflation reached well over 30 percent. Unemployment and underemployment rose as manufacturing declined. Socially, skyrocketing drug-addiction rates manifested growing rot within.13 Thus, Khamenei needed a new strategy if he was to honor Ayatollah Khomeini's 1988 edict establishing the maintenance of the Islamist regime as the top priority, bar none.14
Khamenei needed first to ensure clerical ascendance. Devolution into an authoritarian state dominated by military leaders would not just compromise the regime's basis for legitimacy, it would obliterate it. Attuned to practical politics, Khamenei well understood threats to power. Throughout his tenure, he acted cautiously, outmaneuvering potential political challengers in subtle but effective ways. Even today, there is no clarity as to who will succeed the 74-year-old Khamenei as supreme leader; to avoid creating a challenger, he has not groomed a successor. It was thus highly unlikely that he would perceive the rise of the IRGC as wholly benign. With its multibillion-dollar business empire that includes construction projects, development of oil and natural-gas fields, telecommunications and transportation, the IRGC has developed economic interests that it is keen to protect. Under Ahmadinejad, IRGC veterans were appointed to a variety of political positions. Others were elected to office at both the national and the provincial level.
Militarily, the IRGC is not as large as the conventional armed forces; however, at 120,000 strong, it is far more than a palace guard. Moreover, the IRGC operates its own army, air force and navy, in addition to controlling the ballistic-missile program and efforts to develop nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. Constituent units of the IRGC include the externally directed special-operations command, the Quds Force, and the internally focused militia, the Basij. Organized by geographic district, the IRGC is deployed in such a manner that it has comprehensive reach over the entire Iranian state. Although the IRGC was created as a force to protect the Islamic Republic against a possible military coup, it now stands as the entity most capable of launching one. Should the regime appear to become unstable, placing the IRGC's economic and political interests at risk, it could develop an intent to match its capabilities.
Thus, Khamenei faced the delicate task of ensuring clerical primacy over the security forces without alienating them. This mandated restoring the regime's lost legitimacy so that it was less reliant on force. As long as popular rebellion remained a significant threat, the IRGC retained its implicit role as kingmaker, an idea reinforced by the Egyptian military's role in the collapse of both Hosni Mubarak's regime and Mohammed Morsi's government. A key step in restoring legitimacy was convincing the public that the 2013 elections would be fair and free. However, Khamenei could not allow truly free elections, for fear a firebrand reformist might win who would embolden radical dissent and destabilize the regime, provoking IRGC intervention.
Accordingly, Khamenei applied the time-tested strategy of controlling the ballot so as to achieve the desired result. Making use of the Guardian Council's vetting authority, he had the most dangerous potential candidates, including Rafsanjani and Mashaie, disqualified from running. He then had six conservative candidates approved, along with the moderate Rouhani and a lackluster reformist, Mohammad Reza Aref, making it likely that the conservative vote would be split. Three days before the election, Mohamed Reza Aref withdrew, leaving Rouhani as the only nonconservative option. As expected, the reformists fell in line with the moderates behind Rouhani while the conservative vote was split.15 Had Khamenei intended for a conservative to win, he would never have permitted such a ballot. Accordingly, with the popular candidate victorious, the elections helped the regime regain some measure of legitimacy.
A second step in checking the IRGC was to return a cleric to the presidency. Ahmadinejad was the first layman in the office since the early days of the Islamic Republic, when Abolhassan Bani-Sadr served briefly before being forced to flee Iran, and Mohammad Ali Rajai served for less than a month before he was assassinated. Not being a cleric, Ahmadinejad lacked the personal ties, often forged during the seminary years, that bind many of the clerical elites despite their political differences. Restoring a cleric to the presidency, overseeing the day-to-day governance of the state, would curb any ideas that clerical authority should become purely ceremonial.
To obtain both the electoral legitimacy and the Islamic restoration he wanted, without infuriating the conservatives, Khamenei needed a cleric who was not a true reformist but whom the reformists would support. Hassan Rouhani fit the bill. A formally educated cleric, Rouhani is recognized as a hojjat al-Islam, a position just below ayatollah in the Shia clerical hierarchy. He has written extensively on Islamic law and is reportedly accepted as a mujtahid, one who can use independent reasoning in applying Islamic principles so as to offer religious guidance in novel situations. Along with his clerical credentials, Rouhani has a distinguished background of support for the Islamic regime. He was active in the Islamic resistance to the shah as a disciple of Ayatollah Khomeini prior to the revolution.
For the first 20 years of the regime, he served in the Majlis, rising to the level of deputy speaker. He served as a key assistant to Rafsanjani on the Supreme Defense Council during the Iran-Iraq War and later as national security adviser to both Rafsanjani and Khatami for a total of 13 years, while adding membership in the Expediency Council and the Assembly of Experts to his resume in 1991 and 2000, respectively. He has served on the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) for over 20 years and, since 2007, as the personal representative of Ayatollah Khamenei. Moreover, as a long-time insider, Rouhani is not reliant on a separate base of support such as the IRGC. This point is accentuated by the makeup of Rouhani's first cabinet, in which IRGC veterans declined from nearly 40 percent under Ahmadinejad to less than 17 percent.16 Also of note, Rouhani wears the white turban of a sheikh rather than the black turban of a sayyid, a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed. Thus, even if he were later accepted as an ayatollah, he represents little threat to Khamenei as a potential rival.
Alongside these clerical and regime credentials, Rouhani has developed a reputation for moderation and pragmatism. As the chief nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005, foreshadowing the November 2013 bargain, Rouhani concluded a pair of agreements with the European Union that led to a temporary suspension of Iran's uranium reprocessing and a promise to fully cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Irreconcilable differences of interpretation caused the deals to collapse; however, Rouhani emerged with a positive reputation in the West, becoming known as the "diplomat sheikh." Within the first week of the Ahmadinejad presidency, Rouhani resigned as chief negotiator, rejecting Ahmadinejad's bombastic style. Later, Rouhani publicly criticized Ahmadinejad's policies, complaining about a lack of consultation, economic problems, and a foreign policy that increased the number of Iran's enemies.17 Despite this comparative moderation, Rouhani is a steadfast regime supporter whose loyalty to the supreme leader is both political and personal. Unlike his old patron Rafsanjani, he has refused to criticize the 2009 crackdown or Khamenei.
When compared to the remainder of the 2013 presidential field, Rouhani was clearly the least conservative. Thus, he was able to win endorsements from both the pragmatist Rafsanjani and the reformist Khatami. Indeed, the only way he could have lost the election, given the structure of the ballot, would have been a reformist boycott, a measure the regime did everything it could to avoid. Khamenei had found a cleric who could appeal to reformists, yet avoid a conservative revolt.
In addition to re-emphasizing clerical superiority over the IRGC and rebuilding regime legitimacy, Khamenei had a third objective: reunifying the conservatives. Khamenei has long feared the type of "velvet revolution" that ousted dictators in Eastern Europe. He sees Iran's reformists as unwitting dupes of the West who will undermine the regime's foundations by introducing practices of an alien culture. Thus, he wants to ensure the strength of the conservatives; he sees them as least vulnerable to Western advances. While Iranian domestic politics have been factionalized since the early days of the Islamic Republic, under Ahmadinejad the severity of the split became exponentially greater. In his challenge to the supreme leader over the intelligence minister, Ahmadinejad lost support among many of the younger "ultra-conservatives" who had broken away from the old-guard regime elites. However, the ultra-conservative movement remained a potent force. With Ahmadinejad out of the way, Khamenei hoped to rebuild conservative unity so that internal differences would be removed from the public stage. Had Khamenei chosen an old-guard conservative candidate and placed the weight of the regime's power behind him, it would have exacerbated the break with the ultra-conservatives. Conversely, supporting the ultra-conservatives would have run counter to Khamenei's need to re-emphasize clerical dominance. Installing a relative moderate in the presidency forces the conservatives to work together toward a common goal for the next four years. In short, Rouhani provides Khamenei with a foil to help spur conservative reunification.
Along with the domestic motivations, Khamenei undoubtedly took note of a major external benefit likely to come with a Rouhani victory: the immediate threat of a foreign military attack on Iran's nuclear program has diminished. Meanwhile, in the West, the relative moderation of Rouhani compared to Ahmadinejad resulted in a flurry of positive press upon his election.18 Rouhani's "charm offensive" during his visit to the United Nations in September 2013 and the unprecedented telephone conversation with President Obama cemented his reputation as representing real change in Iran. While Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been less sanguine, he has found it difficult to muster support in the West for his concerns about Rouhani's ability to deliver. In the first year of the Rouhani administration, Khamenei has straddled the fence, issuing public notes of caution about Western intentions while simultaneously avoiding overt criticism of the new president.
With memories of the 2009 election protests fresh in mind and echoes of the Arab Spring still reverberating across the Middle East, Ayatollah Khamenei faced a delicate situation in the 2013 election. Although the Islamist regime had successfully quashed the Iranian demonstrations in 2009, it had to rely on raw force, resulting in a transfer of power from regime clerics to the IRGC. Coupled with the IRGC's increasing economic power, its growing political power caused the IRGC to surpass the reformist movement as the greatest potential challenge to the Islamic Republic's velayat-e faqih (rule of the supreme jurisconsult) system. Thus, Khamenei sought to reduce the IRGC's power by returning a cleric to the presidency and by restoring the regime's popular legitimacy at the polls. At the same time, Khamenei needed to protect against reinvigorating the defeated reformist movement too much. Finally, Khamenei saw the elections as a chance to reunify the conservatives domestically. With Hassan Rouhani, Khamenei found the ideal candidate, a respected cleric who appealed to moderates but was loyal to the system. Demonstrating his political guile, Khamenei engineered the conditions for Rouhani's victory, manipulating the ballot to give him the win without resort to electoral fraud.
Since coming to office, Rouhani has delivered as hoped. He has regained a level of popular support for the regime that was missing for several years. He has diminished the overt political role of the IRGC. His personal popularity has helped restore some measure of legitimacy to the cleric-led government. He has overseen the negotiation of an agreement bringing Iran economic relief from U.S. sanctions, without ceding the right to enrich uranium, disabling centrifuges or abandoning the Arak heavy-water reactor. Conservative infighting has been placed on the back-burner as both traditional and new-generation conservatives focus on what they see as the misguided policies of Rouhani. This serves Khamenei's goal of reunification while also benefitting Rouhani's nuclear negotiating team, which can claim it is limited by domestic constraints in how far it can go.19
What remains to be seen is how much Rouhani can deliver. The likelihood of reaching a permanent resolution to the nuclear dispute within the given six-month time period is low. Substantive disagreement on what will be accepted, reaching accord on the technical management of any deal, and domestic constituencies in both the United States and Iran that oppose any agreement, make the deadline unrealistic. While the parties may seek to extend the agreement for continued negotiations, domestic electoral timelines in the United States will limit this maneuver. However, replacing the lifted sanctions and convincing other global actors to cooperate will be increasingly difficult as long as Rouhani retains the public appearance of openness. Accordingly, Khamenei may have safeguarded his own position, enhanced regime security and undercut economic sanctions, without sacrificing any basic interests — through his strategy of supporting Rouhani.
1 Karim Sadjadpour, "The Wrong Way to Pressure Iran," Washington Post, September 28, 2007, A19; Robert Baer, The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower (Crown Publishers, 2008), 73-74; Amir Taheri, The Persian Night: Iran under the Khomeinist Revolution (Encounter Books, 2009), 244; Ali Alfoneh, "How Intertwined Are the Revolutionary Guards in Iran's Economy?" Middle Eastern Outlook, no. 3 (April 2010): 6; Roozbeh Safshekan and Farzan Sabet, "The Ayatollah's Praetorians: The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the 2009 Election Crisis," Middle East Journal 64, no. 4 (Autumn 2010): 554-56; Elliot Hen-Tov and Nathan Gonzalez, "The Militarization of Post-Khomeini Iran: Praetorianism 2.0," Washington Quarterly 34, no. 1 (Winter 2011): 45-59; and Ahmed S. Hashim, "The Iranian Armed Forces in Politics, Revolution and War: Part One," Middle East Policy 19, no. 2, (Summer 2012): 98-116.
2 The remaining vote was split between moderate Mehdi Karroubi with 17 percent, conservative Mohammad Baqr Qalibaf 14 percent, moderate Mostafa Moin 14 percent, conservative Ali Larijani 6 percent, and reformist Mohsen Mehralizadeh 4 percent. Andrzej Kapiszewski, "Iran's 2005 Presidential Elections and Their Impact on the Republic's Politics," in Iranian Challenges, ed. Walter Posch (Institute for Security Studies, 2006): 19.
3 International Crisis Group, "Iran: What Does Ahmadinejad's Victory Mean?," Middle East Briefing, Aug. 2005, 2 n. 2.
4 See, for example, Eliot Hen-Tov, "Understanding Iran's New Authoritarianism," Washington Quarterly (Winter 2006-07): 165 (asserting Ahmadinejad benefited immensely from the IRGC's "voter mobilization, as well as outright vote-rigging."); Babak Ganji, "President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: A Turning Point in Iranian Politics and Strategy?" Conflict Studies Research Center Report, Middle East Series 05/62, Oct. 2005: 2-6 (describing Guardian Council involvement in electoral fraud as well as noting claims of improper IRGC interference); and Ladan Boroumand, "The Role of Ideology," Journal of Democracy (Oct. 2005): 56-57 (noting untoward involvement of the IRGC and Basij in the elections).
5 Vali Nasr, "Iran's Peculiar Election: The Conservative Wave Rolls On," Journal of Democracy (Oct. 2005): 18.
6 Scott Peterson, Let the Swords Encircle Me: Iran – A Journey Behind the Headlines (Simon & Schuster, 2010), 493.
7 Mazier Bahari, "Secret Poll Shows Voters Turn against Ahmadinejad," Newsweek, June 15, 2009.
8 Peterson, 5.
9Washington Post, June 16, 2009.
10 Mashaie was distrusted by conservatives, who believed he was overly accommodating of Israel.
11 Bruce Drake, "As It Fights in Syria, Hezbollah Seen Unfavorably in Region," Pew Research Center, June 7, 2013.
12 Reuters, July 1, 2013 (noting the over 1,000 Iraqi deaths in May 2013 were the highest since '06-'07).
13 MSN News, Aug. 22, 2013.
14 In 1988, Ayatollah Khomeini issued an opinion that raised protecting the interests of the Islamic Republic above even compliance with sharia law. Simon A. Wood, "Rethinking Fundamentalism: Ruhollah Khomeini, Mawlana Mawdudi, and the Fundamentalist Model," Journal for Culture and Religious Theory (Spring 2011): 182.
15 According to official vote totals, Rouhani won 50.7 percent; Mohammad Baqr Qalibaf, 16.6 percent; Saeed Jalili, 11.4 percent; Mohsen Rezai, 10.6 percent; Ali Akbar Velayati, 6.2 percent; and Mohammad Gharazi, 1.2 percent. Conservative Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel withdrew prior to the election. BBC News, June 15, 2013.
16 Ali Alfoneh, "President Rouhani's Cabinet: MOIS vs. IRGC?" Foundation for the Defense of Democracy, Aug. 7, 2013.
17 Associated Press, Oct. 10, 2007.
18 See, for example, Jack Straw, "Iran's New Leader Offers Hope for the Region," Telegraph, June 16, 2013; "A Glimmer of Hope in Iran," Australian, June 17, 2013; "Rouhani's Victory: The World's Opportunity," Bloomberg.com, June 18, 2013; and Ali Vaez, "U.S. Must Not Miss New Opportunity to Engage with Iran," Christian Science Monitor, July 16, 2013.
19 See, for example, Robert Putnam, "Diplomacy and Domestic Politics: The Logic of Two Level Games," International Organization 42, no. 3 (Summer 1988): 427-260.