The significance of Iranian President-Elect Hassan Rohani’s victory

Rohani’s victory isn’t expected to generate any substantive changes. At most, there will be an essentially empty shift towards a more conciliatory tone vis-à-vis the West and the Iranian people. There should be no illusions; Hassan Rohani is as much a man of the Islamic Republic as any of the other candidates.

By Paweł Piotr Styrna l July 30, 2013

The supposed “moderate” cleric, and former nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rohani, emerged as the winner of Iran’s sham presidential elections—held on June 14—with 50.7 percent of the vote. The remainder of the (official) vote went to five more hard-line candidates, including:

Tehran mayor and former military, air force, and police commander, Mohammed Bagher Ghalibaf (16.56 percent); former Deputy Foreign Minister for European and American Affairs, and current chief nuclear negotiator and Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, Saeed Jalili (11.36 percent); and former head of the Revolutionary Guards, Mohsen Rezaei (10.58 percent).

Since Rohani presented himself as the “reform” candidate, voting for him was a way for a majority of Iranians to convey their opposition to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his favorite, Saeed Jalili.

Possible rigging?

The fact that the hard-liners received as many total votes as they did may be explained in three ways. Some might argue that perhaps the radical Islamists are sufficiently popular as to capture almost half of the votes. If that were truly the case, however, why would the regime be so nervous about the very real possibility of a repeat of the 2009 protests? It is more likely that the most idealistic anti-regime Iranians simply stayed home and boycotted the election.

It is also possible that the regime “transferred” some Rohani votes to other candidates. But why cheat only partially? Rohani may have been granted the victory to preempt the massive protests that shook the nation four years ago. In other words, the people were thrown a bone. Of course, until we learn more about the details of the election, this theory is a speculative one. Yet, it is grounded in the regime’s history of vote rigging and its desire to hold onto power at any price.

Another Khatami?

In this light, we should not expect Rohani’s victory to generate any substantive changes. At most, there will be an essentially empty shift towards a more conciliatory tone vis-à-vis the West and the Iranian people, i.e. a replay of the Khatami era (“reformist” cleric Mohammad Khatami was President of Iran in 1997-2005).

In fact, the Obama administration’s foreign policy team – John Kerry, Susan Rice and Samantha Power – has quickly moved toward re-engaging the regime by easing sanctions to restart nuclear program talks setting the stage for a clash with Congress.

However, we should entertain no illusions; Hassan Rohani is as much a man of the Islamic Republic as any of the other candidates. Otherwise, he would not have received the blessing of the regime’s Guardian Council, which approved only eight candidates out of a total of 680 total applicants to run for the IRI (Islamic Republic of Iran) presidency. That amounts to a 98.8 percent rejection rate. (Among the rejects were Iran’s former president, the “pragmatist” Akbar Hashemi Rasfanjani, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s favorite, Esfandiyar Mashaei.) Thus, the elections are already rigged at the very outset, thereby showing how little trust the ayatollahs put in their propaganda about the popularity of their Islamist system.

Why was Rohani’s candidacy accepted? Well, just as the communists during the Gorbachev era needed smiling “reformers” so currently do the Islamists in Tehran require a “controlled opposition.” The regime needs to diffuse internal and external pressure to buy time, the very same maneuver communists periodically employed to gain what Lenin termed a “breathing space” (peredyshka).

The regime against its own people

Much of the regime’s domestic unpopularity stems from the fact that it stands in opposition to the common good and national interests of the Iranian People. Just like the Bolsheviks treated Russia and other countries as bases to spread the communist revolution so do the Islamists in Tehran regard Iran as a mere springboard to further their brand of Islamic revolution. Ayatollah Khomeini admitted this himself:

“We do not worship Iran, we worship Allah. For patriotism is another name for paganism. I say let this land [Iran] burn. I say let this land go up in smoke, provided Islam emerges triumphant in the rest of the world.”

Although disputed by one historian (Shaul Bakhash of George Mason University), this was by no means an isolated outburst. Rather, it has encapsulated a set of policies pursued consistently by the regime. To understand this one must comprehend Iran’s long history.

Why the history matters

Persia was not always a (nominally) Muslim-majority country. In fact, for much of its early history its rulers and population adhered to the indigenous monotheistic religion of Zoroastrianism. Iranian culture was rooted in this faith and its influence survived even the country’s Islamization. For example, the Zoroastrian New Year—Nowruz—is still celebrated in the country and the Farvahar, the symbol of Zoroastrianism, is still respected by many Iranians and worn around the neck in the form of medallions. The pre-Islamic Persian empires (in spite of a brief conquest by Alexander the Great) were mighty superpowers in their day and their legacy is a source of great pride to many Iranians, particularly the educated. Iran, however, exhausted itself in constant wars with the Byzantines (the successors of the Romans). An invasion by Muslim Arabs in the 7th century AD thus brought catastrophic consequences.

The entire Persian Empire was conquered by the Caliphate. The invaders destroyed and plundered the realm, while enslaving some of its population. Iran was brutally Islamized. While the Arabs found willing and enthusiastic converts, most of the population seems to have been pressured and coerced into renouncing the faith of their ancestors. Iranians became Dhimmis (second or third class subjects) in their own country and were forced to pay a punitive Jiziya tax in exchange for “protection.” Initially, even Iranians who converted to Islam ran into discrimination and chauvinism on the part of the Arabs until they demonstrated their power by helping one dynasty of caliphs topple another. Even so, the Islamization of Persia took about three centuries and was punctuated by anti-Arab, anti-Muslim revolts and uprisings.

Here lie the roots of anti-Arab sentiments among many Iranians. Some Iranians even view those Iranians who adhere to a strictly religious Islamic identity or place Islam above Iran as Taazi, which essentially means Arabized traitors. At the same time Iranians—whose national identity is mostly cultural, rather than purely ethnic or racial—seem to generally accept ethnic Arabs (residing in southwestern Iran) as fellow Iranians, although the IRI regime discriminates against Iran’s minorities, much as the Soviet Union did against non-Russians. Anti-Arab feelings are often enflamed by anti-Iranian chauvinism on the part of Arabs, many of whom (especially Sunnis) do not recognize Iranians as “true” Muslims and insist on depicting even the Shia Islamist regime as crypto-Zoroastrian infidels. The Arab-Iranian tension is evident in such issues as the conflict over the proper name of the body of water between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula, which Iranians are determined to call the Persian Gulf, and which Arabs stubbornly refer to as the Arabian Gulf.

During the last 100 years, the attitude towards pre-Islamic Iran and the Arab invasion became rather polarizing issues and acquired tremendous political meaning. Thus, during the reign of the Pahlavi Dynasty (1925-1979), the two Shahs who attempted to modernize and Westernize the country emphasized the glories of ancient Persia and viewed the Arab invasion as a national tragedy. This elicited strong resistance from the Muslim clergy and the part of the population under its influence.

Following the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the Khomeinist regime reversed the historical policies of the Shahs. The kings of pre-Islamic Persia were now portrayed as “tyrants” and “infidels,”, while the invasion and conquest of Iran by the Arabs was euphemistically described as the “dawn of Islam.” Nationalism and patriotism were now equated with “paganism.” In a country with a strong national identity and respect for the pre-Islamic past, such an attitude on the part of the regime generated opposition and disapproval. Furthermore, many resent the squandering of Iranian resources on spreading the Islamic revolution or supporting Arab causes (such as Hezbollah in Lebanon or the Palestinians) at a time of increasingly painful economic hardship. It is not surprising, therefore, that more nationalistically-inclined Iranians dubbed the Islamic Revolution of 1979 the “second Arab invasion.”

Attempts by the regime to play the “nationalist card” are rare and quite timid, generally facing stiff opposition from the Islamist regime’s hard-liners with their “nationalism = idolatry” mantra. The only kind of patriotism that is tolerated is a kind of shallow pro-regime “patriotism.” Admittedly, the regime attempts to tap a nationalist impulse when it talks about “Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear energy.” For the most part, Iranians do not like foreigners dictating to them, but quite a few Iranians also seem to understand that the regime’s goal for the nuclear program is to benefit the system, not the nation; just like any other IRI policy.

This overview suggests that nationalism—which is nowadays so often maligned and equated with such extreme perversions of it as Nazism (i.e. German National Socialism)—may have a liberating potential in Iran. Since the Islamist regime in Tehran treats the country and its people like an occupier, ever suspicious and contemptuous of the subjugated populace, a healthy nationalism fuels resistance to the regime and might lead to its eventual defeat. If Westerners, particularly those in charge of public diplomacy and media broadcasts into the country, want to help Iranians expedite their liberation, they would do well to beam messages about Iranian history (e.g. about pre-Islamic imperial glories or Persian resistance to the Caliphate) and national pride into Iran via Farsi-language radio and TV programs.

Don’t get excited over Rohani

Iran’s history and the regime’s ideology, thus, are much more important than particular personalities and their stated agendas. There is no reason to get excited over the election of Rohani. He may speak about “freedom” and “reforms,” but those who believe him will surely be disappointed. After all, even if Rohani was actually sincere, which is highly unlikely, his powers are quite limited. It is the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, who holds the most reins of power, not the president. Expecting the system to fundamentally liberalize itself in an evolutionary manner is naïve and assumes that the rulers strive towards freedom, which is dubious to say the least. The IRI system is as unreformable as Communism. Only regime change—brought about not through war, but by the efforts of Iranians themselves—promises meaningful change.

Pawel Styrna has an MA in modern European history from the University of Illinois, and is currently working on an MA in international affairs at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC, where his is a research assistant to the Kosciuszko Chair of Polish Studies. Mr. Styrna is also a Eurasia analyst for the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research and a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.