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Rouhani's victory: An Iranian Spring or Business as Usual?

Commentary, 18 June 2013
Middle East and North Africa
The mere election of Hasan Rouhani should be considered revolutionary as it repudiates the extremist ideology of Iranian hardliners. However, whether the new Iranian leader will be able to affect any change remains to be seen.

The mere election of Hasan Rouhani should be considered revolutionary as it repudiates the extremist ideology of Iranian hardliners. However, whether the new Iranian president will be able to affect any change remains to be seen.

Hasan Rouhani

The timely and dramatic victory of Hasan Rouhani in the recent Presidential elections in Iran has caught many by surprise (not least this writer) and resulted in scenes of unabashed jubilation among supporters in Tehran and many other cities around Iran. They regard Rouhani's late surge and seizure of the Presidency, a fitting end to eight years of extremist rule and mismanagement.

The hard-line establishment and its supporters have been quick to try and cement a narrative of mass participation and loyalty to the Islamic system. But if the chants of the crowds are to be believed, there is widespread and growing confidence that Rouhani's victory is a vindication for Mousavi, and there have already been calls for Rouhani to honour his campaign pledge to work for the release of both Mousavi and Karrubi (the Reform candidates in the disastrous 2009 election) from house arrest, along with many other political prisoners.[i]

The Significance of the Election Result

Indeed, if Iranian websites are to be believed, Rouhani's victory is the prelude to something altogether more dramatic in Iranian politics and at the very least a wholesale rejection of the last eight years. For many Iranians, there is a sense, that a long nightmare is finally coming to an end and that mounting political and economic pressures have finally induced the hard-line leadership around Ayatollah Khamenei to yield not only to public opinion, but, perhaps more importantly, to the growing criticisms from the elite itself.

Nothing exemplified this more than the increasingly scathing comments of the noted conservative, Ali Motahhari, whose ideological transformation from hardliner to centrist mirrors that of many hard-liners who had grown exasperated with the current state of affairs. Or indeed, Rouhani himself, who while pragmatic, was never quite as collegial with the Reformist government of Mohammad Khatami as current historical revisionism would like us to believe.

In this light we should reflect carefully on what this victory means: the challenges, limitations and opportunities. Rouhani is a pragmatic conservative but a conservative nonetheless who effectively distinguished himself in the campaign against the hard-line policies and sheer incompetence of the last eight years. He drew interest from a disaffected and disillusioned majority of moderate and reformist Iranians - badly bruised from their experience in 2009, down but clearly not out - by making a series of quite startling promises, not least about civil and human rights. He benefitted enormously from both the alliance and support of former Presidents, Rafsanjani and Khatami, representing in many ways the realist and idealist wings of Iranian politics.

Few people believe he could have won without their support and much of the popular expectation for the future depends on these two gentlemen (and their allies) playing a far more important role in Iranian politics. The persistence of Khatami's popularity is not only remarkable but so is the fact that so many reformists heeded his call to come and vote. It is remarkable because for the last eight years reformism has been decried as nothing less than heretical while its leaders have been harassed, imprisoned and in the cases of Musavi and Karrubi, labelled as 'wagers of war against God' (mohareb). This repression, lest we forget in the sudden euphoria around Rouhani's victory, continued all the way through to Election Day itself. Indeed, this election has been one of the most tightly controlled in Iran in recent memory, with internet connections restricted and the press severely curtailed. If this election is a triumph for anyone therefore it is triumph for the idea of reform and the politics of change.

What is perhaps more intriguing this time round, is that this electoral triumph may prove more than fleeting because of severe fractures in the elite of the Islamic Republic. Indeed, only recognition at the top, and on both sides of the political divide - that substantive (rather than cosmetic) change is necessary - will put the Islamic Republic back on track towards democratisation, (let us not have any illusions that Iran is a democracy), and to heal the gaping and open wound of 2009. There should be no doubt that the sedate and methodical counting of votes this time round has been already noted and favourably compared with the rather speedy 'computerised' counting last time round when the result was effectively confirmed by 4am.

Undoubtedly there are many among the elite who were determined that the events of 2009 could not be repeated, and had warned the authorities accordingly. The consensus of opinion is that the man that matters, Ayatollah Khamenei, under enormous economic and political pressure and in the interests of the overall survival of the system, finally yielded to the inevitable.  

A Significant Result, But Let's Not Get Carried Away

Yet a word of caution is required. The scale of the political transformation both demanded by the public and promised by Rouhani and his supporters is enormous, if undoubtedly necessary. Rouhani has promised greater freedoms for all including students and the press; greater accountability in government - including the re-establishment of the much missed Plan and Budget Organisation; and crucially hinted at the release of political prisoners, along with better relations with the West, with a view to having sanctions lifted. Rouhani will have to start delivering and delivering soon (he takes office in August) if his words are not be seen as yet more empty words intended to ensure a high turnout at the ballot box. This will require almost herculean political will on the side of the new pragmatist-reformist alliance, and a recognition and acceptance by the hard-line establishment of the message the electorate has sent.

This message, to be clear, is not one of unadulterated love for the Islamic Republic as it is currently configured, with its republican institutions emasculated and power increasingly concentrated in the hands of a Leader accountable only to God. Indeed those who have rushed to suggest that Rouhani's victory shows that the Leader hasn't really been in control, appear to miss the point of this protest vote. If much of the publicly stated ire has been directed at Ahmadinejad, no one has any illusions of who backed him consistently over the last eight years, even if relations have frayed over the last eighteen months. When mourners at Ayatollah Taheri's recent funeral (a staunch supporter of Reform and a colleague of Ayatollah Montazeri) began chanting 'death to the dictator', it is unlikely that this was being directed at the outgoing President.

But the magnitude of the task at hand cannot be easily dismissed. No one should have any doubt of the enormous damage that has been done to Iranian political and civil society over the last decade, and the narratives that have been imposed to support it. At least two accounts have already been punctured: one in the debates when both Rouhani and Velayati attacked the handling of the nuclear negotiations, with Rouhani recently adding that while Iran's nuclear programme had always been 'transparent', there may be room for more transparency; while the sedate procedures of the current election have largely debunked the official view that the 2009 elections had been fairly managed.

Far more sacred cows will now have to come under scrutiny, not least the role of the Supreme Leader in the political life of the country. It will be on this particular debate that much will hinge and already one influential hard-line commentator has poured considerable cold water on the belief that times are a changing. In a lead editorial for Keyhan newspaper, Hossein Shariatmadari, makes quite clear that the Leader remains central to all political decisions, that Rouhani is a conservative and Khatami is a 'seditionist'. Indeed as far as Shariatmadari is concerned, for all the jubilation, all Rouhani will be able or indeed want to do (as a good conservative) is execute policy, not make it. It makes for sober reading.

As for those who have delivered victory to Rouhani, some may settle for Khatami-lite, but there should be no doubt, if Iran's problems are to be seriously, systematically and institutionally addressed, and the public not disappointed, Rouhani will have to start think seriously about being 'Khatami-plus'.

[1] See for example:;;;


Ali Ansari
Senior Associate Fellow

Ali Ansari is professor of Iranian History and director of the Institute for Iranian Studies at the University of St Andrews; Senior... read more

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