Why Rouhani won — and why Ayatollah Khamenei let him

Suzanne Maloney writes: One explanation is that the Ayatollah simply miscalculated and found himself, once again, overtaken by events when Rouhani’s candidacy surged with little forewarning. Indeed, it is likely that Khamenei really did expect Iranians to vote for the conservatives. After all, the conservatives have held all the cards in Iran since 2005; they dominate its institutions and dictate the terms of the debate. With the leading reformists imprisoned or in exile, no one expected that the forces of change could be revived so powerfully. When his expectations proved off base last Friday, Khamenei could have simply opted not to risk a repeat of 2009.

There is another possibility, however, and one that better explains Khamenei’s strangely permissive attitude toward Rouhani’s edgy campaign and toward the extraordinary debate that took place between the eight remaining presidential candidates on state television only a week before the election. In that discussion, an exchange about general foreign policy issues morphed unexpectedly into a mutiny on the nuclear issue. One candidate, Ali Akbar Velayati, a scion of the regime’s conservative base, attacked Jalili for failing to strike a nuclear deal and for permitting U.S.-backed sanctions on Iran to increase.

The amazingly candid discussion that followed Velayati’s charge betrayed the Iranian establishment’s awareness of the regime’s increasing vulnerability. It could only be understood as an intervention — one initiated by the regime’s most stalwart supporters and intended to rescue the system by acknowledging its precarious straits and appealing for pragmatism (rather than Jalili’s dogmatism). The discussion was also an acknowledgement that the sanctions-induced miseries of the Iranian public can no longer be soothed with nuclear pageantry or even appeals to religious nationalism.

It is therefore possible to imagine that Khamenei’s unexpected munificence, including his last-minute appeal for every Iranian — even those who don’t support the Islamic Republic — to vote, was planned. In this case, those who see Rouhani’s election as a replay of the shocking political upset that Khatami pulled off in 1997 are off base. Instead, Rouhani’s election is an echo of Khamenei’s sudden shift in 1988 and 1989, when he charged Rafsanjani, a pragmatist, with ending the war with Iraq, and then helped Rafsanjani win the presidency so that he could spearhead the post-war reconstruction program. Now, as then, Khamenei is not bent on infinite sacrifice. Perhaps allowing Rouhani’s victory is his way of empowering a conciliator to repair Iran’s frayed relations with the world and find some resolution to the nuclear dispute that enables the country to revive oil exports and resume normal trade. [Continue reading…]

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