Iran elections reflect consensus at the top
(AWTWNS 1 July 2013)

This AWTWNS news packet for the week of 1 July 2013 contains one article. It may be reproduced or used in any way, in whole or in part, as long as it is credited.

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Iran elections reflect consensus at the top

1 July 2013. A World to Win News Service. Iran held presidential elections on 14 June, and Hassan Rouhani, a member of the Supreme Security Council and former chief negotiator on nuclear issues, won in the first round. Given the rigged election of 2009, and widespread complaints about the results of 2005, many people thought that this time too Ali Khamenei, the Vali-e-Faqih (Supreme Guide), along with the Pasadaran (Revolutionary Guards), the military force under his command, would pick someone closer to their faction, someone like Saeed Jalili, Iran’s current chief nuclear negotiator, or Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the former police head and present mayor of Tehran, or even Ali-Akbar Velayati, an ex-foreign minister and adviser to Khamenei.

The turnout was considerably less than the last election in 2009, and the large number of blank ballots (about 1.7-1.9 million) represented a form of protest, so around 16 million eligible voters did not go along with the elections despite all sorts of propaganda pressure. But according to officials, about 72 percent did vote, which was enough to please the regime.

All the regime factions, including the so-called reformists under Khatami, the so-called moderate faction under Rafsanjani and the Ahmadinejad government were active in tricking and cajoling people to vote. But what is interesting is the imperialists media with Persian services, such as BBC and Voice of America, enthusiastically stoked electoral fervour. They even concentrated their programming on the balloting for several weeks ahead of time. Furthermore, they indirectly and even directly encouraged people to vote so as to “play their role”, and those who expressed distrust of or lack of interest in this exercise were confronted with tricky questions difficult for ordinary people to answer. After Rouhani’s election, the same media launched a campaign against those who boycotted the election.

Some opposition political forces tried to fan interest in this election by calling it a referendum against Ayatollah Khamenei. Maybe that was the feeling of many ordinary people. Doubtlessly the vast majority of those who voted for Rouhani did so not because he was their choice but as the “lesser evil”. However, that is not the way to understand this election. Rather than being a big no to Khamenei, it was a yes for a brutal and reactionary regime, all of whose factions have been oppressing the people.

It is very likely that the election will be followed by personnel changes, even among key regime players. But at the end of the day this election gave the ruling power an opportunity to reorganise and realign its forces and prolong its existence. That was, in fact, the purpose.

Why Rouhani?

Why didn’t Khamenei and his close allies in the regime and the Pasdaran try to repeat the last two election scenarios and appoint someone from their faction? And why did they give in to someone like Rouhani, who is closer to Ali Akbar Rafsanjani? The question is even more curious because in vetting the candidates the regime’s Guardian Council disqualified Rafsanjani himself from running.

Actually, even before the elections the various regime factions had come to a consensus that Hassan Rouhani would be the next president. This is despite the fact that factionalism and infighting had reached its highest point since the Islamic regime seized power in 1979. In 2009 this factionalism took the regime to the worst political crisis in its existence when the reformist faction protested the rigged presidential election and ordinary people desperate for change poured into the streets and shook the regime to its foundations.

First of all, this time the regime was not in a position to absorb another shock like the one in 2009. Secondly, the deteriorating political and economic situation has substantially worsened the living standards of the vast majority of the people. It has been estimated that more than half the population lives under the poverty line. This is the result of cutbacks in subsidies on items of basic necessity, the fall of the Iranian currency to one third of its value within a month fuelling a sharp rise in price, and an unemployment rate at well over 20 per cent according to official figures. At the same time a small layer of the society, mainly people connected to the power structure, are concentrating massive wealth, including by benefiting from the trade and financial sanctions imposed by the Western imperialist powers.

The people have long felt suffocated under the oppression of a religious system that has especially targeted women, but the burden of sanctions and other pressures meant to force the Islamic Republic to give up its nuclear programme has mainly been shifted onto the masses of people, adding to the explosiveness of the situation. Further, the popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa over the last two years as well in Turkey and Brazil must have made all the factions aware of the seriousness of the situation and the need for a compromise to protect the regime’s stability.

The internal economic and political situation is not the only factor that has increased the anxiety of many Iranians. Imperialist intervention in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria has raised very serious concerns among many ordinary people who fear that like those countries, Iran too may be devastated or disintegrate. This is an increasingly real threat.

Shifting relationships between and within the regime factions are another factor in the current situation. On the one hand, the monopolization of power by Khamenei and his close allies has driven other factions of the regime closer to one another. This includes the “reformists” who have been increasingly pushed out of their positions, and also the so-called moderate (or pragmatist) faction of Rafsanjani, whose members have been able to hang on to a few important posts in the system. On the other hand, the dominant conservative faction has become more divided. Khamenei is increasingly isolated and losing his authority within his own circle, as attested to by the open differences between him and Ahmadinejad. This might help explain why the conservative faction could not agree on one candidate and ended up with three.

Political manoeuvres in the run-up to the election suggest that such an agreement took place, either explicitly or implicitly. One indication is that about a week before the election, the reformists’ candidate, Mohammad Reza Aref, pulled out of the race to help Rouhani. He later announced that Khatami had asked him to do this, and both Khatami and Rafsanjani went to visit him and thank him for dropping out. Then both Khatami and Rafsanjani publicly supported Rouhani, as did the entire Aref camp.

At the same time, when Rafsanjani was disqualified, Khamenei thanked all those candidates who uncomplainingly complied with the ruling. Unlike in previous elections, the Supreme Guide did not announce his inclination towards any of the candidates, and he insisted that he had only one vote. Also in contrast to other elections Pasdaran members were not publicly active and their commanders did not show a preference for any candidate. In a speech about the election a few days beforehand, Khamenei took a more conciliatory tone than at any time over the last four years. For the first time he admitted that some people oppose the system, and he asked them to vote, if not for the system than for the sake of the country.

Ahmadinejad, who had threatened to raise a stink and expose some elements within the Islamic regime if the candidacy of his man Rahim Mashaei were not approved, had to remain silent. After his election, Rouhani emphasised that he did not belong to any faction and wanted to rise above them all in his administration. He said he would invite capable people from all sides to form and run his government. His election was greeted by representatives of various different factions and institutions, including the Pasdaran, in a gesture of conciliation.

The majority of the factions agreed on one candidate because they recognized that the system was under real danger from various directions and that they could not continue like before. They had to make some changes to the way they manage the people, the way they deal with the imperialists, and the way they run the economy. The first step was to draw a large number of people to vote so as to regain some of their lost legitimacy. The Rafsanjani faction plays the role of moderate between the reformists and conservatives, so it was easier for the other regime factions to unite around it. When the reformists’ Aref quit, the only candidate who claimed to seek change was Rouhani, and given the mood of the people and the tendency to blame the conservatives for the country’s problems, it was not difficult to predict that Rouhani would get the most votes. In other words, the advantage of this compromise for the Islamic regime was that there was no need for cheating or rigging the election. The publicity would easily drive voters towards him.

Who is Rouhani?

Before Rafsanjani was disqualified by the Council of Guardians, Rouhani himself had said that only one of the two of them, either he or Rafsanjani, would remain in the race. That clearly shows his alliance with Rafsanjani. While Rouhani pretended to be a reformer during his election campaign, he has been a member of the Supreme National Security Council since 1989. He was its secretary until 2005, when Ahmadinejad became president. He also headed Iran’s nuclear negotiating team with the EU Three (the UK, France and Germany) until that year. His other positions in the Islamic Republic’s key institutions include membership in the Assembly of Experts since 1999 and the Expediency Council (led by Rafsanjani) since 1991, and head of the Centre for Strategic Research since 1992. He was also the deputy speaker of parliament during its fourth and fifth terms.

During the Iran-Iraq war Rouhani became the deputy commander of the armed forces and the head of the air force. It is said that he was probably the man sent by Rafsanjani to engage in the secret negotiations with the U.S. which, when exposed, became known as Irangate.

Rouhani said little about the 2009 upsurge in Iran, and didn’t even make any concrete comments about the rigging of the elections that year and the subsequent arrest of Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karoubi.

Rouhani started to criticise the policies of the Ahmadinejad government a year ago, at a time when he probably intended to run for president. He has been critical about economic policy and the way the nuclear negotiations have been conducted.

Will he be able to keep his promises? There is no need to wait and see, as he has been incapable of coming up with a programme that is different from his predecessors. His economic proposals cannot go beyond the measures introduced by Rafsanjani and Khatami. Their plan was mainly to follow the advice of the World Bank and IMF and integrate Iran more deeply into the network of world capitalism. Ahmadinejad followed the same path. While Western political leaders did not like him, IMF and World Bank reports were favourable toward Ahmadinejad and his economic reforms. In fact, the reduction of subsidises on the most basic needs of the masses (an important factor in their daily problems today) was a measure taken by Ahmadinejad and encouraged by those financial institutions. Rouhani criticised the Ahmadinejad government for how he handled these subsidies. He also says he wants to orient the economy towards production, but how can he do that and at the same time follow the advice of the IMF and World Bank? How can he reduce poverty while following the austerity measures that are unavoidable when complying with the dictates of these world financial institutions?

The fact is Rouhani is pinning his hopes on being able to get along with the imperialists so that the sanctions will be lifted or at least eased. And this was another important part of his campaign platform: he criticised the tensions with the West and the conduct of the negotiations. He repeatedly said, “It is very good that the centrifuges are running but on the condition the country and the people’s lives run too.” How that will work out remains to be seen.

Clearly he cannot present a fundamentally different programme for the economy or resolve the fundamental contradictions in Iranian society that have been growing over the last three decades. What he might be able to do is some political manoeuvring with the help of other Islamic regime leaders such as Rafsanjani, Khatami and Khamenei. He is counting on the being able to temporarily ease some of the pressure by the West. But there is also the possibility that after a short time the various contradictions will once again reach even higher levels of intensity.

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