Despite widespread disagreement about how Hassan Rowhani’s election as president affects the chances of a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear program, just about everyone appears to agree on one thing: The victory of a “relative moderate” came as a complete and unwelcome surprise to Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. I’d been wondering whether anyone was ever going to challenge this blatantly irrational consensus, but finally, someone has. “I interpret his election in one way only: The regime wanted him to win,” said Dr. Soli Shahvar, head of Haifa University’s Ezri Center for Iran and Gulf Studies, in an interview with the Tower.
Shahvar pointed out that not only was Rowhani handpicked by the regime to be one of only eight candidates, while hundreds of others were disqualified, but the candidate list was blatantly tilted to ensure that he would place first: It pitted a single “moderate” against five conservatives (two candidates dropped out before the vote), thereby ensuring that the conservative vote would fragment. “If they had wanted one of the conservatives to win, they would have gotten four of the five conservatives to drop out of the race,” Shahvar said.
Indeed, though Shahvar didn’t mention it, that’s precisely what happened on the “moderate” side. Initially, there were two “moderates,” but former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami persuaded one, Mohammad Reza Aref, to withdraw so as not to split the moderate vote. It beggars belief that Khamenei couldn’t have engineered something similar on the conservative side had he so desired.
It’s also worth noting that throughout the campaign, Khamenei carefully avoided giving any hint as to which candidate he preferred. The widespread assumption that he preferred a conservative is unsupported by any evidence.
But the most convincing argument, to my mind, is one Shahvar didn’t make: the final vote tally. According to the official results, Rowhani clinched the contest in the first round by winning 50.7 percent of the vote. But for a regime widely suspected of committing massive electoral fraud to ensure Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection in 2009, it would have been child’s play to alter the vote count by the tiny fraction necessary to put Rowhani under 50 percent and force a second round. Moreover, it would have been perfectly safe, because none of the pre-election commentary foresaw Rowhani coming anywhere near victory. Thus had his tally been announced at, say, 49 percent instead, there would have been no suspicions of fraud; rather, everyone would have been amazed at his strong showing. And then, with conservatives pooling their forces behind a single candidate in the run-off, a narrow loss for Rowhani would have been equally unsuspicious.
It’s not hard to figure out why Khamenei would have wanted Rowhani to win: He desperately needed someone who could ease the international sanctions and stave off the threat of a military strike without actually conceding anything on the nuclear program. And Rowhani’s performance as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator in 2003-05 proved his skill in this regard. Indeed, he boasted of it: “While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the [nuclear conversion] facility in Isfahan,” Rowhani said in 2004. “By creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work there.”
In the aftermath of Rowhani’s victory, American and European officials are already talking enthusiastically about a new round of negotiations, while Israeli analysts say the election has almost certainly delayed any possibility of military action against Iran’s nuclear program until 2014. Thus Khamenei has gotten exactly what he wanted. The only question is why all the “experts” are still portraying this as a defeat for the regime.