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With Iran’s presidential elections days away, pundits and decision-makers alike have been following Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s every move and remark in search of clues over which candidate he favors. The implicit assumption is that the elections are ultimately decided by one vote only—that of Ayatollah Khamenei. In reality, the supreme leader has far less control over elections than what is popularly believed. To the extent that there is a kingmaker in the Iranian elections, it’s not Khamenei but his reformist rival, former President Mohammad Khatami, whose endorsement carries the greatest weight.
Despite the near limitless powers ascribed to Khamenei, the historical record is clear: the antiestablishment vote has tended to dominate Iranian elections. Since Khamenei symbolizes the establishment, the Iranian electorate tends to reject the candidates that they perceive have his backing. In 1997, the Majlis Speaker, Ali Akbar Nategh Nouri, was presumed to be favored by Khamenei, leading many to believe he was a shoo-in for the presidency. But instead, the Iranian people stunned the world—and Khamenei—by throwing their support behind a then largely unknown reformist candidate: Khatami.
Eight years later, another unknown candidate by the name of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad defeated the presumed favorite, the late Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is considered one of the pillars of the revolutionary regime. But precisely because Rafsanjani was perceived as an embodiment of the establishment, the antiestablishment vote went to Ahmadinejad.
By the following election in 2009, Ahmadinejad’s role had reversed: while he enjoyed Khamenei’s backing, the former prime minister of Iran, Mir Hossein Mousavi, resurfaced after more than two decades of internal political exile, and was considered by voters as the antiestablishment candidate. But when the results were announced—Ahmadinejad had won with 62.6 percent of the vote and Mousavi only 34 percent—a record number of people took to the streets in protest, calling the vote fraudulent. A number of countries in the West voiced their concern about election irregularities, and domestic discontent would soon thereafter culminate in the Green Movement.
This pattern of anti-elite voting continued in the 2013 election. Iran’s former lead nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, was widely believed to be Khamenei’s candidate in the race, a perception Jalili himself had actively manufactured. Once this belief settled, most pundits and foreign governments alike viewed Jalili as the “anointed one.” But after the ballots were counted, Jalili had won only 11.31 percent of the vote. It was a massive rejection of Jalili’s handling of the nuclear talks and arguably of Khamenei himself.
As I describe in my book Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy, even senior Iran watchers within the U.S. government were convinced Jalili would clinch the presidency. The U.S. intelligence community said that Hassan Rouhani, the eventual winner of the elections, had “a snowball’s chance in hell to win.” “Everyone was surprised,” a White House staffer told me two years later. “We had a bet—an office pool, and nobody got it right.” Once again, the Iranian populace shocked the world, even though a clear pattern was emerging.
Although some argued that Rouhani could have won only with the support of Khamenei—this is an almost conspiratorial view of Iranian politics in which whatever happens does so because Khamenei willed it—the U.S. government concluded that Khamenei and other hard-liners simply lacked the capacity to change the election outcome. “[Rouhani] was elected in our analysis over the objection of the supreme leader,” Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told me.
What is more, Rouhani won even though he is actually an ultimate regime insider and hardly an antiestablishment figure. But he was viewed as the antiestablishment candidate because he received the endorsements of former Presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami, who had by then gained antiestablishment status after their support for the Green Movement in 2009. At the time, the conservative vote was split among six candidates, leading Rouhani to reason that he would be able to secure the entire reformist and antiestablishment vote by having the reformist movement back him. This required, however, that former reformist Vice President Mohammad Reza Aref withdraw from the race and back Rouhani. Only one person could convince Aref to do so: Khatami. And only one person could convince Khatami to push his former vice president to quit the race: Rafsanjani, which he did.
What happened next, according to sources close to Rouhani and Khatami, was that a week before election day, Khatami sent Aref a handwritten note followed by a lengthy phone call urging him to drop out. But despite Khatami’s best efforts, Aref refused. At the end of the call, Khatami could get only one commitment from Aref: that he would mull it over. But by the next day, Aref had bitterly decided that it would be for the greater good if he withdrew his candidacy. As so many Iranian politicians have begun to do, he took to Facebook to announce his resignation in favor of Rouhani. “In consideration of Mr. Khatami's explicit opinion, and the experiences of two past presidential elections,” he wrote, “I declare my withdrawal from the election campaign.”
Still, Rouhani was trailing far behind his conservative competitors just four days prior to the election, polling in fourth place and with Tehran’s mayor, Mohammad Qalibaf, having what appeared to be an insurmountable lead. Rafsanjani and Khatami recognized, however, that the hard-liners in Iran tend to win elections either when they cheat or when they convince the population that their votes won’t matter, and so the duo quickly launched a campaign to get out the vote, Iranian style. Through prerecorded YouTube videos that quickly went viral, they sought to convince the public not to sit out the election, despite the fraud that had occurred four years earlier.
Once Khatami and Rafsanjani’s YouTube videos came out, everything changed. Within a day, Rouhani’s numbers went from 14.4 to 26.6 percent, while Qalibaf began to lose ground. Overnight, Qalibaf’s lead had vanished. Over the next two days, Rouhani’s support skyrocketed, reaching 38 percent the day before the election. This was a remarkable turn of events—only five days before the election, Rouhani was uncertain he could get more than ten percent of the vote, according to one of his advisers. Thanks to Rafsanjani and Khatami’s efforts, he became the front-runner overnight.
Two critical lessons can be drawn from these episodes. First, because Khamenei personifies the establishment, it is not his endorsement that matters, but that of respected antiestablishment figures who despite their political marginalization still have unmatched reach within Iran’s society. Currently, that person is Khatami, who has managed to make use of social media to circumvent the government’s media blackout of him dating back to 2009.
Second, despite the profoundly undemocratic preelection vetting of candidates by Iran’s Guardian Council, Iran’s elections are highly unpredictable and immensely consequential. Although only candidates loyal to Iran’s clerical system are allowed to run, candidates with starkly different approaches from those favored by Khamenei have made it through the screening. Right now, both Rouhani and reformist candidate Eshaq Jahangiri fit that bill. And that is precisely why Iranians participate in the elections. It presents one of their few chances to collectively affect the direction of their country—and to overrule Ayatollah Khamenei.