A year has passed since Rouhani was elected. Many people are using this to evaluate Rouhani’s year, but I will hold off of that for now ans wait until his inauguration anniversary two months from now. In this post I want to explain something else, why Rouhani’s election is significant? Why did his win reshape the political atmosphere of Iran, not necessarily by the merit of what he did but because of its meaning and significance? And why his election – the very fact that he was elected, nothing more – was a major victory for the pro-democracy movement in Iran?
For this, you need to track back and see what was the political climate in the four years before the election, and what is the very struggle lying at the heart of Islamic Republic.
The Historical Background
The revolutionaries who brought about the 1979 Iranian Revolution were a pluralistic group of people. They included leftist Islamists, rightist Islamists, liberals, Marxists, and nationalists. All of these people had only two things in common, their hatred of the Shah, and their loyalty to Ayatollah Khomeini, who was a very ambivalent figure at the time.
These revolutionaries wanted to reconcile two inherently contradictory causes: democracy and Islamic theocracy. This contradiction goes way back. The clergies and the western intellectuals who led the Constitutional Revolution wanted a constitutionalist monarchy similar to England, and yet they wanted to implement the Sharia law. The intellectual mind behind behind 1979 revolution, Ali Shariati, also embedded this contradiction in his writings and speeches. On the one hand he was zealously Muslim, on the other he wanted to incorporate the revolutionary spirit of Marx and Sartre’s existentialist concept of freedom into Muslim Shiite myths and mentality.
This contradiction finally led to Islamic Republic, a chimera regime with an unelected theocrat as the head of the regime and an elected president as the head of the executive branch, with a constitution which includes a chapter 3 which is extremely progressive and protects various freedoms from freedom of speech to assembly to a right to privacy, and a chapter 10 which includes an absolute religious autocrat who can practically undo all of these rights.
Of course, Islamic Republic has never been a remotely democratic regime. But it has never been completely totalitarian either, it has always had some breathing place and some space for maneuvers, and the potential for reform has always been there.
And therefore there are two branches inside the Islamic Republic: those who want to strengthen the (weak, faint) democratic aspect, and those who want to conserve (the strong, dominant) autocratic aspect. This has been the root cause of all fights inside the regime.
This was what Kahatami, the first reformist candidate, wanted to do, and he did, and he actually succeeded in many aspects, his presidency brought about the golden age of Iranian press and student movements, and although people were disillusioned and unsatisfied with him at the end of his presidency, he started a movement that is alive until today, and he created some irreversible changes as well. This is what Mir-Hossein Mousavi wanted in his 2009 campaign – his slogan was “reviving the neglected potentials of our constitutions”.
And while Iran’s constitution is by no means democratic, if it is fully applied, Iran would be much much more democratic than now, and therefore such a position would greatly improve the situation. Mousavi even went beyond this. He acknowledged that the constitution is flawed and needs to change, but he believed that the first step to this would be fully implementing it. And this is a position which can bring about all the different opposition and once again create a pluralist movement – we may have different ideas, but implementing the legal rights of Iranian people as mentioned in this constitution is beneficial to all of us, and for this minimum of our demands, we unite and fight.
2009 Protests: The Fight Over the Democratic Aspect
When the regime declared the false results for the 2009 elections, the democratic forces called this a “coup d’tat”. This was not a rhetorical attack – this was something real. At 5:00 AM in the morning when it was clear that Ahmadinejad would remain president I wrote on my Facebook wall that “The Islamic Republic was overthrown today, and a military theocratic dictatorship took its place”. And tomorrow I could hear all pundits from all different striped of the political spectrum echoing exactly this sentiment.
In the four years spanning from 2009 to 2013 the regime pursued a rigorous scheme to completely destroy the democratic aspect of the regime, to strangle the breathing place, to close maneuver space, to silence the already hushed dissent, to make the already extremely flawed elections completely meaningless.
Every element of a classic coup was there: an illegitimate president backed by the military seized power from the democratically elected president, communications for the reformists were cut, many were arrested the same night, more than 2000 people were arrested during the four years, show trials went underway, fake confessions and harsh prison sentences.
The project was clear.
But then this happened:
People took the streets, and resisted. Mousavi and Karroubi stood firm. The regime lost many of its supporters. Many defected and took asylum outside Iran. Many extremists became moderates, many conservatives became reformists. Chief among them was Hashemi Rafsanjani, once the symbol of Iranian conservative movement, the arch-nemesis of the reformists, one of the main founders of the regime, and once the most powerful figure of the regime. He used the medium of Friday Prayers and stood by the protesters, lost his position as the head of the Assembly of Experts (a body responsible for choosing the Supreme Leader), and was targeted by endless insults from the right, and his sons and daughter were arrested. A man who a symbolized the Islamic Republic was opposing the emergence of this new regime, and he himself became a reformist in this process.
Of course, the battle seemed to be lost after that. Mousavi and Karroubi were put under house arrest, Khatami was forbidden to leave the country, and Hashemi Rafsanjani seemed to be completely isolated, the protests ended, there was dead silence in the press, the universities were completely controlled with an iron fist, and a completely meaningless and fake parliamentary election was held. It seemed that the military regime had won.
But the military regime couldn’t run the country properly. The relationship with the west soured, sanctions after sanctions were passed against Iran, the economy completely tanked and an era of stagflation began, Iranian currency lost 300% of its value, inflation sky-rocketed to 70%, and the growth fell under -5%. They faced rips within their own fractions; Ahmadinejad wanted a bigger slice of the pie and was not content with being a figurehead, so he was soon dropped out of favor. In addition to completely destroying the economy, he also headed the most corrupt government in the history of Iran, with billions and billions of bank loans given through illegal means and billions and billion of dollars embezzled. In addition to all of these, the shadow of war, civil or invasion from foreign countries, loomed large and scary.
Objectively speaking, 2010-2013 were not the darkest years in the history of Iran. That dubious honor goes to the early years of the 80s, when Khomeini became a complete tyrant. But the vast majority of Iranians were not born back then, and the political massacres and horrifying tortures were successfully kept hidden from most people. So in the collective subjectivity of Iranians, those years were the darkest years of despair.
How the Project Was Defeated
Many people claim that the regime gave up on the project to destroy the democratic aspect and create a monophonic regime before the election, since they accepted Aref and Rouhani to become candidates. I disagree. The regime wanted to make sure that a conservative gets elected, and Aref and Rouhani were face-saving candidates.
The reformists originally wanted Khatami and Hashemi Rafsanjani to run for president. Khatami, ever the most timid and cautious among the reformist leaders, didn’t register as a candidate. Hashemi Rafsanjani did, but the Guardian Council barred him from running. This was a shocker to most, but it was clear that they don’t want a candidate who is capable of creating a great movement, like Mousavi, and makes them cheat again.
Aref was Khatami’s Vice President, but he was a very low profile figure, and he had chosen silence during the Green Movement. Rouhani was even worse. He refused to call himself a reformist outright, he used to be a conservative, and many doubted if he was still one. (Of course, the signs were all there – Rouhani was responsible for the first round of nuclear talks that could end in a real agreement, he was extremely close to Hashemi Rafsanjani, and had pledged to drop out if he is accepted by Guardian Council).
But the regime had made a huge miscalculation. In Iran, figures don’t make movements, movements make figures. Mousavi was Khomeini’s Prime Minister, but he became the national figure all Iranians could rally behind. He acknowledged that he follows the people, not the other way around.
Until a week before the election it seemed that everything would go as planned, but then Aref dropped out, and Khatami and Hashemi Rafsanjani endorsed Rouhani. The sleeping movement was reawakened.
Initially in the polls Rouhani was ranked 7th among 8 candidates. He steadily rose in the polls. Only one day before the elections, the latest polls showed that he would go to the second round with Ghalibaf. But then he won the election in the first one. And what changed with Rouhani’s rank was the number of people who said they would actually vote. So the turn-out meant the candidate the regime didn’t want to win, won.
And why they didn’t cheat again? Simple, they weren’t going to go through all the crisis one more time. The sacrifices of the people paid back.
When Obama became president in 2008, Time selected him as the person of the year. The title on that issue of the magazine was “History Can’t Wait”.
History is even more impatient when it comes to Iran. Rouhani had already played a historic role the second his name was announced the winner of the election. His election meant that the project destroy the democratic aspect was defeated, as the election was real albeit deeply flawed, that monophony had not conquered, as the opposition and the reformists had managed to install their candidate in power, and had once again managed to create fractures within the regime, that the good old contradiction was back. It meant that the military juntas were defeated, and the Islamic Republic was restored one again.
And I always said Rouhani would prove to be a complete reformist soon. Rouhani’s only political investment was people’s support for him. Democracy is a magnetic force that seems to attract the allies of Ayatollah Khomeini to itself with a deterministic force, I knew as Mousavi and Karroubi and Khatami and Hashemi Rafsanjani all became reformists, so would Rouhani.
But it happened even sooner than I expected. Rouhani is now a president standing firmly against the forces of conservatism, advocating reformist policies and reformist values. He is indisputably a reformist and anyone challenging that is not paying attention and has outdated information.
The Green Movement was a coalition, a polyphony of different voices. It included moderate conservatives, reformists, and opposition members. They all had one common cause, “Where is my vote?” was their slogan. They chanted “Mousavi, Mousavi, take back our votes”. They all wanted preserve the democratic aspect. They all wanted to make sure this small window to the light is not closed. And they succeeded. When Rouhani was elected, they chanted “Mousavi, Mousavi, we took back your vote”.
Will Rouhani be able to implement real reforms and bargain enough with the regime and create enough pressure? I don’t know. No one does. But a day before 2013 election Iran was a different country. Iran is not in a perfect situation, or a good one, or a not-bad one. But the darkest hour has passed and we already have regained the most precious thing we had lost: hope. Iran is already transformed, as it was already many times, this unpredictable country, with its love for surprises and sudden changes and contradictions.
History can’t wait, indeed.