Was the Iranian election a referendum on Iran's nuclear diplomacy?
Hasan Rowhani’s victory is indicative of the Iranian leadership’s rejection by the Iranian people and its failure to sell its hardliner policies, including the nuclear program that has led Iran to a series of crippling sanctions.This interpretation is contestable, and some may find it overstated, but it's certainly not implausible. A great deal will depend on the extent to which Iran's ruling elite, especially Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, share this interpretation of the election results—and how they decide to respond. I have seen a lot of commentary, and even gotten some e-mail messages, about how Obama should respond. Yes, that's an interesting question that may prove to be of practical significance. But the more crucial question, which really needs to come first, is how Khamenei will respond.
It so happens that Rohani was in charge of international negotiations about Iran's nuclear program a decade ago, during failed reformist presidency of Mohammed Khatami (though Rohani was not in the reformist camp himself). The most hard-line of the hard candidates, Saeed Jalili, was in charge of nuclear negotiations with the so-called P5+1 (the five Permanent Members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) since 2007. In addition to being the point man for a rigidly uncompromising negotiating strategy, Jalili became one of the figures who epitomized a more general orientation of intransigence and hostile confrontation in Iran's dealings with the west, especially the US.
During that time, an increasingly solid international consensus has coalesced against Iran on the nuclear issue, leading to effective economic sanctions with severely damaging effects on the Iranian economy. In combination with the Iranian government's own economic mismanagement and the effects of the global recession, the consequences have made life more difficult for the Iranian population. One big question was whether Iranians would put all the blame for sanctions and their effects on outsiders, above all the US—as they've been urged to do by the Iranian regime and its western apologists—or whether they would recognize that their rulers shared a lot of the blame. Well, it seems that most Iranian voters did the latter.
As Max Fisher wrote in the Washington Post just before the election:
Whomever Iranians pick in today’s presidential election, and regardless of whether or not their votes are accurately counted, the winner will not be in charge of the country’s controversial nuclear program or its foreign policy. Those are controlled by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. But the nuclear issue and its ramifications are being debated more openly in this election than you might think and are, presumably, on voters’ minds as they head to the polls. Who they choose might give some insights into how Iranians feel about the nuclear development carried out in their name.And, in fact, Jalili was explicitly criticized on these grounds by several of the other candidates—not only by Rohani, but also by one of the hard-liners, Ali Akbar Velayati. What made this public criticism especially remarkable was that everyone knows Jalili was just doing what Khamenei told him to do, so that criticizing Jalili's approach to the nuclear negotiations meant, implicitly, criticizing the Supreme Leader himself.
The candidate who has most emphasized confrontation over compromise on the nuclear issue is Saeed Jalili, the country’s lead nuclear negotiator and a staunch hard-liner who is thought to be Khamenei’s preferred candidate. As a nuclear negotiator, Jalili has refused to compromise and stonewalled Western efforts to reach an agreement. As a candidate, he’s said not only that Iran should refuse to compromise with the West but that it is in fact winning against the foreign powers, its strategy of stubborn resistance successful. And some people in Iran seem to share that view.
“Open your eyes,” one 20-something Iranian man told a friend who was considering another candidate, according to Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian’s report from Tehran. “Everything we have now is because of Jalili and his courage.”
That Jalili supporter might be more right than he knows. It would be overly simplistic to reduce all of Iran’s problems to a single issue, but the country’s refusal to budge on its nuclear program and the crippling international sanctions that has invited play a big role. Those policies are ultimately decided by Khamenei but Jalili had been a key player in implementing them. Partly as a result, run-away inflation is devastating the middle class, prices on basic necessities are rising and the Iranian health-care system could soon be in crisis.
Jalili, meanwhile, is calling for status quo on the nuclear policy, a refusal to compromise with Western powers and a “resistance economy” that espouses self-sufficiency but has demonstrated little actual success.
When the Jalili supporter said they owed “everything we have” to him, he hit, probably unintentionally, on the degree to which Iranians owe much of their economic and social pains, if not to Jalili directly, then to the confrontational policies he has helped to champion. [....]
With what result? The massive surge of support for Rohani during the last week before the election was based on a combination of many factors, but it seems safe to conclude that popular exasperation with the regime's nuclear policy was one important factor. A lot of Iranians are clearly fed up with the policy of intransigence and confrontation and the results it has brought in the form of economic sanctions and increasing international isolation. They used the election to send that message to ruling elite.
The ultimate repercussions of this protest vote remain unclear—which has not stopped many pundits, analysts, and other observers from jumping to premature conclusions which may well turn out to be based on wishful thinking more than anything else. But the implications may turn out to be significant. Among the various commentators I've read, I think Mehdi Khalaji did an especially perceptive and plausible job of spelling out some of the possible implications:
The main theme of Rouhani’s campaign was his critique of the Islamic Republic’s nuclear policy during the last eight years, which led to a series of U.N, E.U. and U.S. sanctions against Iran. Not only were the business community and private sector deeply damaged by sanctions, but the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’s companies and government businesses also came under unprecedented pressure. The current policy left little hope for peaceful resolution of the nuclear crisis and, because of sanctions, made the impasse the first concern of many Iranian citizens, both urban and rural.It's worth stopping to re-read that last paragraph. Thus, Khalaji suggests,
In the televised debates and his campaign, Rouhani has defended the pre-Ahmadinejad nuclear policy, which he ran from 2003 to 2005. He argued that he succeeded in keeping the nuclear program off the U.N. Security Council’s agenda while also preventing a significant interruption to the program. He said that Iran should change its negotiation pattern, assure the West that it is not after a nuclear bomb and save the economy from sanctions, while letting Iran’s peaceful nuclear program proceed. He described the 2003-04 decision to suspend uranium enrichment for a few months as a way for Iran to prove that the nuclear program is for peaceful purposes while at the same time make progress on the enrichment program during the suspension.
Rouhani’s victory can be interpreted as the success of the West’s policy toward Iran’s nuclear program. Since the start of sanctions, many have doubted whether sanctions are useful, and whether they would change Iran’s nuclear policy, but the 2013 election proved that sanctions deeply affected people’s opinions of the government’s policy of resistance rather than compromise. During the campaign, many of the candidates criticized the resistance approach, which was defended only by current nuclear negotiator Jalili. Even Velayati — who has been regarded as an influential advisor to the supreme leader—criticized Jalili in the televised debate,saying Jalili’s policy harmed Iran and produced zero benefit. [....]
the West now should have more confidence in the negotiations because the Iranian people showed that they are not indifferent to the leverages used against nuclear policy — and indeed the hard-line elite showed it is deeply split over how to proceed on the nuclear front.But before we get too giddily optimistic, Khalaji points out that we also need to keep some important caveats in mind. Among other things, the criticisms of Jalili by the other presidential candidates focused on the tactical incompetence of his approach to negotiations with the west. So far, there has been no serious open debate about the nuclear program itself.
[O]ne should not forget that Rouhani’s justification for negotiations during the campaign was to relieve the pressure without giving up the program. This means that while the West should approach negotiations with cautious optimism, the West has to remain insistent on Iran having only a peaceful nuclear program that is verifiably far from a nuclear weapons capability.It's necessary to add that although Rohani looks "moderate" and reasonable by comparison with Ahmadinejad and the candidates he just defeated, and although he wound up as the default candidate for reformist voters, he has no record as a serious reformist. In fact, he has always been very much a man of the system. OK, everyone can evolve. But even if Rohani is able to bring about significant changes in Iran's domestic and international policies—a big if—it remains to be seen how much these will prove to be changes in substance and how much they will be restricted to changes in tone, style, and public-relations strategy. (Though even changes in tone would be a welcome change from the last 8 years.)
Above all, it's important not to forget a crucial point made by Fisher as well as Khalaji: The person ultimately in charge of both the nuclear program and Iran's foreign policy is not the President, but Supreme Leader Khamenei. And, more generally, all the ultimate levers of power in the system remain in the hands of the un-elected authoritarian/theocratic power structure headed by the Supreme Leader.
So the key questions, really, are whether and how this popular repudiation of hard-line policies will influence Khamenei and the rest of the hard-line power structure.
And of course, Iran’s president does not dominate Iran’s foreign and security policy, which is overwhelmingly set by Khamenei, though the fact that Khamenei allowed Rouhani to win suggests that Khamenei himself may be open to a shift in approach.Maybe. If Khamenei does respond by allowing Rohani some flexibility, and Rohani and his supporters take effective advantage of that room for maneuver, then that could open up some constructive possibilities. In that case, the US government and other western governments should be prepared to respond appropriately. If, on the other hand, Khamenei and the other hard-liners opt for continued inflexibility, then all this will end with even more frustration and disappointment.
This will be a long game, with big stakes. So stay tuned ...