Khamenie and Rouhani are riding a tiger

The victory of reformist-backed moderate and ‘Centralist’, Hassan Rouhani, over the conservative ‘Principalist’ candidates brought hope to some in Iranian society. After announcing Rouhani’s election as president, thousands of people came onto the streets of main cities throughout Iran celebrating what they saw as a defeat for the vote-riggers who ‘stole’ the previous, 2009 elections and brutally suppressed the opposition ‘Green movement’ that campaigned against election fraud. The streets of many Iranian cities echoed to the chants and demands of the pro-Green movement, with crowds calling for the release from house arrest of Mousavi and Karoubi, candidates in the 2009 election.

Although being secretary of the Supreme National Security Council for 16 years and holding key security and military positions would not seem to be an attractive CV for someone to lead a democratic movement, in an extraordinary shift many Green activists and embarrassed Liberals presented Rouhani as chance for change. This resulted in the surge of votes that gave Rouhani a first round victory, although his 18.6 million votes were far less than the 21.6 million votes the last winning “Reformist” candidate, Khatami, scored in 2001 despite the total electorate increasing by nearly 8 million to nearly 50.5 million.

Rouhani announced his victory as one of wisdom and moderation over extremism. However, the reality is more complex.

Although it is presented that Rouhani has brought hope to society, voting for Rouhani is motivated for entirely opposite reasons; desperation and a lack of any alternative for the millions who have previously protested and struggled for change. While gaining over 18 million votes, many people who voted for Rouhani were very unsure, distrustful and hesitant about him. In addition, nearly 14 million people did not take part in the election, showing the level of dissatisfaction and alienation in society.

Rouhani, in the “best” scenario, could be a more moderate Centralist and a close collaborator to former president Hashemi Rafsanjani. When the Guardian Council blocked Rafsanjani’s candidacy, Rouhani became the ‘back-up man’, a ‘Plan B’ for this tendency inside the regime. The victory is more than anything Rafsanjani’s. That is why, after the announcement that Rouhani had won the presidency, Rafsanjani’s official website boldly published on its front page a handwritten note from Khomeini (the founder of the Islamic Regime) that “malicious people should know that Hashemi Rafsanjani is alive” - an open jibe at the ultra-conservatives in the Guardian Council who blocked Rafsanjani standing.

Reformists and Green activists rejoice over their victory. However, looking at where Rouhani is coming from, his victory is not even a real victory of the Reformists. Ironically it shows the Reformist leaders’ weakness, mainly because, as they are part of the elite and not willing to challenge the regime, they made a “lesser evil” choice from amongst the conservative so-called Principlist candidates.

Tehran after Rouhani’s Victory

Dictatorship’s red lines

Rouhani was obviously not Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s first choice. Yet clearly the Supreme Leader is not opposing him and may have “allowed” his election in order to avoid any repetition of the mass protests of 2009 and to attempt to contain opposition within “safe” channels. It seems that Khamenei will try to makes sure that Rouhani will not cross any of the dictatorship’s red lines.

However the widespread celebrations are an indication of how expectations of change can now come to the fore. Such expectations could be quickly dashed, possibility leading to disappointment and a continuation, for a time, of a quiet period in mass struggles. Elements like Khatami (the former Reformist president between 1997 and 2005) who endorsed and built support for Rouhani, may attempt to hold back any struggles, arguing that protests and battles will only “provoke” the conservatives. But the combination of disappointment with Rouhani, and the bitter experience of Khatami’s presidency, can also prepare the way for movements, as the conclusion is drawn that popular action is needed to bring about change. Such mass pressure from below in society could lead to further divisions and splits in the ruling elite, potentially pushing Rouhani into conflict with the Supreme Leader.

For now, Ali Khamenei sees a character like Rouhani, who led Iran’s nuclear negotiating team (2003-2005), as someone who at this moment can provide answers to the regime’s difficult external and internal situation.

The Supreme Leader seems to have concluded that Iran’s recently more assertive foreign policy has not been that successful. Although Iran’s regional position was strengthened by the US’s removal of Saddam Hussein, today the pressure of US inspired sanctions and danger of military attack have already affected millions of people’s lives, leading to a growing popular questioning of the regime’s policies. At the same time, sanctions have led to a continuous drastic drop in the country’s extremely oil-dependent income (currently Iran’s oil production is at a 25 year low). This squeeze on finances has made even the cost of running the state machine, including oppressive security organisations, exceptionally difficult, while also leading to very unpopular tax hikes, like the 30% tax rise last year on bazaaris, Iran’s small shopkeepers and business owners.

The Supreme Leader needs somebody who can he can trust and also could perhaps soften the regime’s behaviour over nuclear issue. In other words, the election result was partly a “Big No” to Iran’s recent foreign policy.

More importantly, the regime desperately needs a character like Rouhani who is able to say to the masses that their demands are achievable within the current system’s framework. He will be presented as someone who is able to promote reconciliation, discourse and to bridge the widening gap between the state and the masses, especially since the 2009 election.

Contradictory victory

Despite the mainstream media analysis which tries to give the impression that the Supreme Leader was exposed and isolated during the election process, the bigger picture show the result as a contradictory victory for him, as well.

Four years ago we saw a movement on the streets of Tehran and other big cities which was becoming more and more radical day after the day. This movement started with, “Where is My Vote?” leading to “This month is blood month; Khameini is overthrown”. The regime’s strategists believed it was a life and death matter for the regime, the biggest challenge they faced since the Iran-Iraq war ended. A big section of the Iranian population wanted to overthrow the government at that time. Today, by letting an obedient “second class Rafsanjani” win elections, illusions have grown that people can and should demand their rights only by voting within current system. The movement which, four years ago, was on the streets has now voted and after brief celebrations appears to have gone back home, watching the top of the government to see if there is change. In this sense, Khamenei has not lost because this layer of society is passive for now - for how long is a different matter.

After the defeat of the mass movement four years ago, it is understandable that many Iranians would seek what appears to be an easier way to achieve change by just voting for the “least bad” candidate. Khameini may be pleased that he has avoided immediate protests against election rigging, but as we have wrote previously (What would a Rafsanjani presidency mean?): “An election result that is seen as a defeat for the Supreme Leader could encourage further struggles from below”.

At that time, we wrote of the possibility of Rafsanjani winning and explained the effect of his right wing, neo-liberal current on working peoples’ lives. But it is clear that Rouhani, if not worse than Rafsanjani, is definitely not going to be better than him.

Iran is a country with deep economic problems, undergoing both a sharp recession and inflation officially put at over 32% a year, but in reality much higher, especially for foodstuffs. An overwhelmingly number of people, at least 40%, now live under the official poverty line, and struggle to make ends meet. Rouhani and his pro-cuts right wing economic agenda will not help working class lives.

In the last few days, Rouhani’s victory has also been claimed as a victory by many other forces, from Khamenei to the Green movement and even by the White House and the other Western powers. Clearly the defeat of the conservative Principalist grouping is important, but it is not a decisive blow. It cannot be forgotten that there has already been the experience of the failure of the previous ‘Reformist’ presidency of Khatami and the comeback of the conservatives.

While understanding last weekend’s celebrations by many Iranians, the key to real change is building an independent movement from below, based upon the working class and youth. This could determinedly struggle not just for the immediate demands of working people for democratic rights, economic and social advance but also against the dictatorial regime and capitalism.

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