Once considered a centrist conservative, reformist candidate has vowed to bring ‘the dignity of the past’ back to Iran
Hassan Rowhani, one of the eight candidates approved to run for the Iranian presidency, has long been considered a centrist conservative, but over the past week of the campaign he has shown more of his reformist colours. The lone cleric in the race, he is also the candidate with the best chance of winning consensus support from Iran‘s beleaguered reformist camp.
Those who explicitly identify as reformists have been all but eliminated from Iran’s political system since the protests over the 2009 vote that was officially won by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Now, local media outlets are full of statements by reformists saying they will form a coalition with Rowhani and another less popular (though openly reformist) candidate, Mohammad Reza Aref, whereby one of them – almost certainly Rowhani – will be declared the standard bearer to avoid splitting the progressive vote.
“We will open all the locks which have been fastened upon people’s lives during the past eight years,” Rowhani said during a speech on 1 June in the north Tehran neighbourhood of Jamaran. “You, dear students and hero youth, are the ones who have come to restore the national economy and improve the people’s living standards. We will bring back our country to the dignity of the past.”
Rowhani, who may have already had a progressive bent due to his long-standing relationship with reformist ex-president Mohammad Khatami, has been engaging in such talk in televised interviews and debates all week. The serene-looking cleric has thereby generated at least a faint spark in a reformist camp that has been moribund for some time.
Tuesday night, in a 30-minute documentary more biography than manifesto, he verged on crossing Iran’s media “red lines” as he criticised the harassment of Iranian civilians by “plainclothes people” – a clear reference to the Basij militia – and the country’s “securitised atmosphere”. He also poured scorn on Ahmadinejad’s record, though that is by now a million miles from any red line.
Elsewhere in the documentary, Rowhani, who is campaigning on the slogan Government of Proficiency and Hope, talked of “interaction with the world” and gender equality. “In my government, differences between women and men won’t be tolerated,” he said.
In an interview on state TV on 27 May that received little attention in the west, Rowhani, Iran’s lead nuclear negotiator during Khatami’s 1997-2005 administration, blamed the nezaam (ruling system) of the Islamic Republic for the failure to engage in direct talks with the US. “[Non-negotiation] was the decision and, thus, the US was set aside,” he said. When asked directly if it was the US that had in fact taken the first step towards negotiation, Rowhani simply replied, “Yes.” This contradicts the prevailing orthodoxy not only in the west, but the official line in Iran as well.
In another incident on Tuesday, Rowhani visited Isfahan to attend the funeral of reformist-leaning cleric Ayatollah Jalaledin Taheri instead of the state event commemorating the anniversary of the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, father of the Islamic Republic. Along with cries of “Death to the dictator” directed at Khomeini’s successor, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, crowds chanted: “Isfahan in one word: Rowhani. That is the end [of discussion].”
Notably, the Rowhani campaign did not try to play down the candidate’s attendance at what has been described as the largest anti-government protest in the country in more than two years. The campaign subsequently tweeted, “People of #Isfahan broke out in chants in favour of #Rowhani.”
Though Rowhani may stimulate the reformists to back him and mobilise disenfranchised voters to the polling venues, he is no firebrand reformer. He has so far cleverly toed the line between appeasing the establishment by showing due deference to Khamenei and exhibiting his revolutionary and Islamic bona fides.
The documentary described Rowhani’s role in fomenting dissent against Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and his association with key figures in the development of Iranian revolutionary ideology, such as Ali Shariati and Mehdi Bazargan. The Shah’s notorious intelligence service, SAVAK, was discovered after the revolution to have been monitoring Rowhani.
Although opinion polling in Iran is fraught with difficulties, and the results are notoriously unreliable, many news websites and media organisations run informal polls online. Over the last ten days, Rowhani has come out on top more often than not, while the candidate widely regarded as Khamenei’s favourite, incumbent nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, has only scored single-digit points in almost all cases.
With the conservatives having failed to unify and rally behind one or two preferred candidates as expected, the prospect of reformists snatching enough of the electorate to trigger a second-round runoff seems an increasing possibility.
However, almost all analysts still place Rowhani’s better-known conservative rivals well ahead of him in the race. Currently Tehran’s popular mayor, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf; former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati, now Khamenei’s top international affairs adviser; and the arch-conservative Jalili appear to stand a better chance of winning.
Many Iranians are convinced that the 2009 vote was grossly manipulated to ensure Ahmadinejad’s re-election over his reformist challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi. Given that history, it’s not clear that Rowhani would be allowed to take office even if he managed to score a victory at the polls. Asked if she thinks Rowhani has any chance, Ziba, 26, a self-employed businesswoman with family connections to the Khatami administration, says, “No way. Because all the people who think like him won’t be voting anyway … Besides, they wouldn’t allow him to win.”
That fear was underscored by the Associated Press report that seven – later revised to “several” – aides working on Rowhani’s campaign were arrested at the Jamaran rally on Saturday. The next day, Gen. Ismail Moghadam, chief of the national police, declared that his forces would not hesitate to “confront individuals who commit counterrevolutionary behaviour.” He held up what transpired at the rally as an example of the police carrying out that “task.”
Still, some self-identified reformists are holding out hope for Rowhani. “He thinks like we do,” says Zahra, 29, the daughter of an Iran-Iraq war martyr. “He’s very intelligent. He’s been biding his time.”
Others are far more sceptical. Thirty-year-old Aziz says, “We’ve had eight years of Rafsanjani, eight years of Khatami. Where did that get us? Things are worse now than ever.
“If Rowhani wins, so what? If Ghalibaf wins, what real difference will it make? Sure, there may be some small changes, but still the Supreme Leader controls which direction the country is going in.”
For the moment, Rowhani has injected some life into what looked to be a very humdrum campaign. Will the reformists openly back him in the end? Doing so might serve only to legitimise the election to the benefit of Iran’s staunchly conservative establishment.
By The Guradian
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