Why Rouhani Won -- And Why Khamenei Let Him

The Ahmadinejad Era Comes to an Auspicious End

Hassan Rouhani, 2006. (Raheb Homavandi / Courtesy Reuters)

Four years ago, after the dubious reelection of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian streets were filled with protestors demanding to know what had happened to their votes. This weekend, the voters finally got their answer -- and, once more, they filled the country’s streets. This time, though, they were celebrating as the government confirmed that Hassan Rouhani, the presidential candidate who had campaigned on promises of reform and reopening to the world, had won an overwhelming victory.

The election of Rouhani, a centrist cleric who has been close to Iran’s apex of power since the 1979 revolution, is an improbably auspicious end to the Ahmadinejad era. Rouhani is a blunt pragmatist with plenty of experience maneuvering within Iran’s theocratic system. He is far too sensible to indulge in a power grab à la Ahmadinejad. And, as a cleric, he assuages the fears of the Islamic Republic’s religious class. He embraced reformist rhetoric during the campaign, but will not deviate too far from the system’s principles, the foremost of which is the primacy of the Supreme Leader. Meanwhile, Rouhani’s focus on the economic costs of Ahmadinejad’s mismanagement resonates with the regime’s traditionalists as well as with a population battered by a decade of intensifying hardship and repression. All in all, the new president might benefit from a broader base of support than any in Iran’s post-revolutionary history, which will be an important asset as he seeks to navigate the country out of isolation and economic crisis.

Going into the election, a Rouhani victory seemed unlikely. The conservatives’ favored candidate was said to be Saeed Jalili, a pious and prim bureaucrat who was appointed as lead nuclear negotiator six years ago. Jalili’s chief qualifications for the post were his status as a “living martyr” (he lost a leg in the war with Iraq), his discolored forehead (from dutiful prayer), and his cultivation of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei over the past ten years. It is easy to understand why Jalili was seen as leading the pack; he is basically an improved version of Ahmadinejad, a younger generation hard-liner who boasts total commitment to the ideals of the revolution but who, given his limited national profile, would be perfectly subservient to Khamenei.

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