It is a case of plus ça change in Iran this weekend. The Iranian presidential elections weren’t going to change the world, and they didn’t. The Supreme Leader is Iran’s ultimate decider, and he doesn’t run for re-election.
That’s probably a good thing from his point of view; Iranian voters turned on him this weekend, with a majority going for the most moderate candidate left standing after the religious authorities rejected anybody they considered dangerous to Iran’s theocratic status quo. The president elect is Hasan Rowhani, considered a pragmatist and a centrist as Iranian politicians go.
Rowhani pulled away from the pack in the election campaign by appealing to Iranians who want a bit more freedom of expression, less intense censorship. more freedom for women and a bit less confrontation with the west. In contrast to his predecessor Ahmadinejad (ineligible to run for a third term), Rowhani appeals to more middle class and educated voters. These voters by and large can be among the most pro-American people in the Middle East (a competition that is not hard to win) and care more about ending the standoff with the west than having a nuclear bomb.
So what does this mean for Iran’s confrontation with the west?
Not much, probably. The nuclear issue has always been controlled by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and nothing in this election will change that. Khamenei is no fool and will scrutinize the election returns but he is more likely to give a little ground on domestic issues than to loosen his grip on the nuclear file.
The retirement of the unlamented A-jad is a relief for both the west and Khamenei. Ahmadinejad’s fiery religious and economic populism made the Supreme Leader almost as queasy as his holocaust denial and Jew-baiting made the west. But Ahmadinejad was not actually the obstacle to negotiations over the nuclear issue; concerned about the economic costs of the sanctions for his low income constituents, Ahmadinejad had gradually become something of a nuclear dove.
Iran’s revolutionary system has proven so durable (already lasting almost half as long as communism did in the Soviet Union) in part because its political system is intelligently designed. Elected politicians compete for office and take responsibility for a lot of what governments do: economic policy, schools, fixing potholes and so on. They also dispose of a lot of patronage and give a lot of government business to those they wish to reward. That makes Iranian politics more interesting to voters than the typical immobility of autocratic states. The Supreme Leader keeps ultimate power in his hands, but if the city government hasn’t fixed the road in front of your house, you don’t blame him.
In other words, Iran has a ‘deep state’ where the real power lies and a ‘shallow state’ where politics happens. This is a form of government that has a long history in the region, and to some degree it is what we see today in countries like Jordan, Egypt and Pakistan. (Until recently we saw it in Turkey as well.) It offers a more flexible and perhaps more durable political system than a pure dictatorship, but at the cost of allowing more public input into relatively trivial issues it solidifies the hold of the real rulers on the issues that count.
Iranian newspapers are highlighting the voter turnout of 73 percent as a sign that the system is working. While voters understand very well where the real power lies, they still choose to participate in the political process. The Supreme Leader may be less worried that his pet candidates did poorly in the election than he is pleased to have an electoral process that lets voters blow off steam while the deep state rolls on.