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Iran’s Presidential Elections: A Political Essay


As a political scientist observing Iran’s political situation from afar, this year’s presidential elections provide yet another context for theoretical reflection on the post-revolutionary society and its evolution over the past four decades marking certain changes amid political continuity.

This means taking stock of the revolution’s initial elan, its reconstruction of national identity, its creative blend of theocracy and democracy, and its founding principles of liberty, popular sovereignty, redistributive justice, and anti-hegemony.

Over time, journeying through multiple internal and external crises, the Islamic Republic has reached a new level of maturity or, to put it in political science jargon, institutionalization that is, simultaneously, confronted with the challenges of maintaining its authenticity and vitality, the coherence of its historical vision, valorizing its revolutionary ethics, and sustaining development. The beauty of the presidential elections is that it creates a new opportunity every four years to revisit these big questions and contemplate about the future direction of the Iranian society.

In so contextualizing the presidential elections, critical lenses are necessary in order to decipher the nature of changes and to evaluate policies and alternatives for leadership presented to the nation.

There is an on-going generational discourse and debate about the nature, problems, and prospects of Iran’s Islamist democracy featuring regular elections, checks and balances, and a dynamic civil society that is part of the post-revolutionary public sphere, crystallized in the electoral politics that makes incremental adjustments routinely, such as by adopting televised presidential debates, which have become the fulcrum of public discussions, enabling a greater degree of political transparency and accountability, thus adding to the system’s legitimacy.

Of course, the downside of these debates is that it risks giving priority to style over substance, and campaign tactics over strategy, compared with the upside of being a catalyst for national integration of the electorate into the political process in a more meaningful way, in light of the still rudimentary and haphazard life of political parties in today’s Iran.

The majority of Iranian voters do not belong to any party and their votes are cast along a plethora of class, ideology, ethnic, and other lines. In Iran, these debates perform basically the same function as in western “deliberative democracies,” by providing a rational venue for informed choices by the voters engaged in evaluating the presidential candidates on the television screens.

But, the process is rife with potential tensions and susceptible to being derailed, as was the case with the controversial 2009 elections when a losing candidate, who gained the majority in the capital city, contested the results even though he never proffered any serious documents to prove his allegations.

The tremors of that political earthquake still rattle the political system, which experienced a period of contraction and has yet to fully resolve the specter of that election haunting it.

In retrospect, it is patently obvious that serious political mistakes were made by both sides and that signs of foreign meddling to cause a ‘velvet revolution’ in Iran and thus to unravel the Islamic revolution could be found aplenty. Since then, as expected, the political system adopted precious lessons and is still wary of lifting some of the limits on the democratic process that could prove destabilizing.

Meanwhile, a whole set of new questions have popped up in this election: has the Rouhani government performed up to par deserving a second term? Is Iran under Rouhani swayed too much in the direction of neoliberal globalization? Has the revolution’s egalitarian dimension evaporated and needs to be rehabilitated? Has the premise of a “resistant economy” been informing the government’s economic and foreign decisions?

Indeed, the list of questions is a long one and the feasible answers to them quite divergent, depending on one’s political point of view. There are those in Iran who strive for a new rebalancing of the government’s priorities away from technocracy and toward Islamist populism, concerned that the government suffers from a “vision deficit” and apt to make the post-sanctions Iran conform with the dictates of world capitalism and thus cause a revolutionary metamorphosis into a status quo power.

This forms the nub of criticism of the three Usulgarayan (Principalist) candidates, Raisi, Ghalibaf, and Mirsalim, who accuse the Rouhani government of embourgeoisification and becoming the guardians of “top 4 percent.” They criticize the new culture of consumerism eating the revolution from within, and the appalling wage and income inequalities.

Such criticisms resonate with the poor electorate, whose ranks have swelled by millions over the recent years, with estimated %40 percent of the population at or below the poverty line.

To these candidates, Rouhani’s failure to deliver the economic benefits of the nuclear deal present a devastating weakness that warrant their current optimism that, perhaps, they can unseat him, particularly if in the end they unify behind one candidate and avoid splitting their votes (as was the case in the previous elections). Also, they are emboldened by the Supreme Leader’s recent criticism of Rouhani’s discourse that the nuclear deal removed the threat of war. On the contrary, the leader stated, it was the people and their heroic resistance that achieved this goal.

Still, there is no doubt that Iran’s skillful nuclear diplomacy deserves a great deal of credit for removing the Chapter VII Un resolutions on Iran and maintaining Iran’s nuclear fuel cycle, albeit at a reduced level, as part of a grand nuclear bargain with the West, which essentially used the nuclear crisis as a hegemonic strategy vis-a-vis Iran.

Iran’s nuclear diplomacy was thus an example of deft counter-hegemony that knocked down the wall of sanctions and enabled Iran to slowly recuperate from the pile of punitive damages, requiring patience and sustained diplomacy since the West is still keen on “containing” Iran. Consequently, foreign policy continuity is mandatory in Iran, so that a second term Rouhani presidency can build on its present efforts in order to maintain and deepen the new chapter in Iran’s international relations foisted by the nuclear deal.

This is why Rouhani deserves a second term and will likely manage to pull this off at the ballot boxes in the near future, provided that he can convince the voters that he is capable of correcting the shortcomings of his first administration, above all the “vision deficit,” technocratic elitism, and the like.

Still, despite such shortcomings, it is worth remembering that Rouhani has an economic record of an Islamic populist as well, given the fact that his annual budgets devote a lion shares to social services, tantamount to a redistribution of national wealth from the top, and that simply means that the “petrolic populism” of Iran has a built-in tendency to reproduce its logic of action, instead of a straightforward evolution to a post–populist moment.

The biggest challenge of Rouhani is to demonstrate his willingness and ability to muster the necessary energy and will power to stay the course of Islamic revolution and its pillars of anti-hegemony and Islamist redictributive justice.

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Kaveh L. Afrasiabi

Editor's Note: Federal authorities in 2021 charged this contributor with operating as an unregistered agent of the Iranian government. Eurasia Review is leaving the article on the site as a matter of public record while updating his author page and the article to include this new information for context. Kaveh L. Afrasiabi, Ph.D. is an Iranian-American political scientist and author specializing in Iran’s foreign and nuclear affairs, and author of several books.

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