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Will the Presidential Elections “Cure the Pain” of the Iranian People?

[Screenshot from Iranian TV showing a young Rouhani with Ayatollah Khomeini.] [Screenshot from Iranian TV showing a young Rouhani with Ayatollah Khomeini.]

Do not just look at the pictures of Iranians celebrating late into the night in Tehran’s streets. Listen, they are singing Yar-e Dabestani-ye Man [My Grade School Friend]. This old Iranian protest song has become the unofficial anthem of the student movement.

Tyranny’s welt on our flesh
Has not faded with time
The fields of our culture
Have grown wild with neglect...
Who but you and I
Has power to cure our pain? 

Unlike the highly contentious presidential elections in 2009, the morning after the 2013 elections, Tehran’s streets were mostly empty. In 2009, the final tally of some thirty million votes was announced by the Ministry of the Interior (MOI) within six hours of the polls closing. The candidate many assumed had won, Mir Hossein Mousavi, was placed under house arrest, and the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad asserted his reelection victory. 

This time round, the tally of votes trickled in slowly. Journalists covering the elections tweeted that they were headed home for a nap. Bleary-eyed analysts, academics, and journalists in London, New York, and Washington, DC, watched the live stream of the Islamic Republic of Iran News Network (IRINN).

Inevitably, there was conjecture about the delay in announcing the election results. Would Dr. Hassan Rouhani’s early lead hold? Would there be a second round of voting if any candidate failed to win a clear majority? Did the delay in announcing election results mean that the election process was being jettisoned yet again? Long after the polls had closed, an MOI official on Iranian state television announced a few more results and commented on “the conjecture by foreign sources.” Denying that there was any intentional delay of the process, he vowed that MOI would not sacrifice accuracy for speed in tallying votes. 

As day turned to night in Tehran, the MOI announced that almost all the votes had been counted. All of the candidates were meeting with MOI officials, and reporters had been informed that final results would be announced within the hour. The New York Times Tehran Bureau Chief, Thomas Erdbrink, reported small crowds gathering in Tehran’s Haft-e Tir Square, wearing purple and chanting “Bye Bye Ahmadi!”

Soon after, Iran’s Minister of Information announced that Rouhani had won by a wide margin in an “epic election.” Rouhani’s campaign retweeted a message from Hashemi Rafsanjani extolling the results as the ideal outcome and another from the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamanei urging all to respect the results. 

Within Iran’s factional politics, Rouhani traditionally had been counted among the conservatives. As the Guardian Council announced the list of eight candidates who could run for president in May, new political alliances began to take shape. With former president Rafsanjani disqualified by the Guardian Council, he and other politicians associated with the Green Movement rallied behind Rouhani. His campaign was designed to appeal to the reformists and more moderate voters. With the slogan “A government of prudence and hope,” his twitter account featured pictures of former presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami. His campaign regularly tweeted messages in Persian and English with hashtags like #hope, #prudence, #progress, #ruleoflaw, #dialogue, and #development. Hinting to regional uprisings, his campaign posters promised Iran’s disenchanted voters that this is the spring that was behind the winter.

A cleric, Rouhani became politically active as a young man in the age of the Shah. He joined Khomeini in exile in Paris and has been part of the religious establishment that has shaped the contours of the Islamic Republic over the past three decades. Hardly an outsider, Rouhani has been deputy speaker of the parliament, a member of the Supreme National Security Council, and a top negotiator for Iran’s nuclear program. 

Although Rouhani has been embedded within the highest levels of power within the Islamic Republic, he also sees himself as an intellectual. He has penned a number of books, edited several journals, headed a research center, and served as a trustee of Tehran University. The Spectator hailed him as a Glasgow man, whose time studying for his PhD in Scotland “bodes well for Iranian politics.” And Rouhani has indicated he would like to improve Iran’s international relations, not just with Western nations, but regionally as well. 

Historically, when Iranian leaders seek improved foreign relations, cultural diplomacy becomes a central tool for them. Film festivals and art exhibitions become instruments in improving strained relations between states. As a new cabinet takes shape, might Iran’s culture workers and intellectuals, who confronted stifling conditions during the Ahmadinejad presidency, experience greater liberties?

Rouhani’s win caught many Iran analysts in the US think-tank circuit by surprise. American analysts had been focused on Saeed Jalili, whom they saw as Khamenei’s “anointed” candidate. In the end, he came in a distant third. Why did many such Iran experts get it so wrong? The reason is that too few understand the complex forces that drive Iranians’ political will.

Right before the final tally was announced, IRINN was airing a historical documentary about the occupation of Iran by Russian and British forces during World War I. All Iranians—across political divides and generations—care deeply about Iran’s independence from foreign intervention. Since the Constitutional Revolution of the Qajar era, Iranians’ struggle for democracy and national independence has been intricately enmeshed. Some analysts assumed Iran’s electorate would simply rubber stamp any candidate whose positions seemed more closely aligned with the Supreme Leader, who holds ultimate power over Iran’s military and foreign policy. The expectation was that Iranians would either not vote—in apathy or frustration—or vote for Jalili. 

Iranian state television dubbed the elections as “epic,” emphasizing the large, diverse crowds who voted at some 60,000 polling stations across Iran. Official state analysts sought to interpret the high voter turn out as a legitimization of the Islamic Republic’s established order and a rejection of foreign interference in domestic politics. They opined that this legitimacy would strengthen Iran’s hands in its diplomatic relations.

But the 2013 elections may foretell a different story. Despite suffering from punishing sanctions and poor economic conditions caused by mismanagement and an increasingly rigid regime, the Iranian people showed that their political will remains strong. The eight presidential contenders were heavily vetted by the Guardian Council, and all of them have long historical connections with the established power structures of the Islamic Republic. But elections are an opening, a space within the political system for the Iranian people to assert their will. Hardly quiescent, the Iranian people showed they remained politically engaged, demanding that in this election their votes be counted. As Barbara Slavin, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, tweeted, “#iran results confirm the reformist majorities of 97 and 00 and the fraud of 09; imagine if people could choose anyone.”

The Iranian people voted not to rubber stamp the status quo. Instead, they voted to be heard—at the voting polls and in the public squares. As the final election results were announced, crowds filled Tehran’s streets. Some sang protest songs and chanted slogans of the Green Movement, calling for Mousavi to be released. “I warmly shake the hands of all moderates, reformists and principlists,” Rouhani said. “This…was a victory of wisdom, moderation, progress, awareness, commitment, and religiosity over extremism and bad behavior.” It remains to be seen how Rouhani will govern as president, and how his administration will address the growing discontent of the Iranian people.

But on the night of 15 June, Tehran’s streets, free of security forces, belonged to the people. As their song says, “Who but you and I has the power to cure the pain?”