Foreign Policy Blogs

Iran’s election: What it means for democracy and foreign policy

Iranians cast their votes in the presidential election of June 14, 2013. More moderate cleric Hassan Rowhani was the clear winner in a carefully choreographed race; voter turnout is estimated at 75%. Photo:

Iranians cast their votes in the presidential election of June 14, 2013. More moderate cleric Hassan Rowhani was the clear winner in a carefully choreographed race; voter turnout is estimated at 75%. Photo:

On Sat. June 15 Iran announced the results of its latest presidential election. In what many saw as a surprise, Hassan Rowhani — a relatively moderate cleric — emerged as the outright winner. Instead of protests in the streets as followed the 2009 reelection of the hard-line Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, this time Iranians took to the streets to celebrate. “It is unbelievable, have the people really won?” pondered a woman on the Tehran subway (in a women’s only section).

On the surface this result is a bit confusing- a democratic election in a state that has rarely been termed a democracy. To help sort out what the election and its result really mean for Iran, I interviewed Robert Shelala II, a former Iran researcher with the Arleigh Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. While at CSIS Shelala was a contributing writer for The Gulf and U.S.-Iranian Strategic Competition report series. Currently a security and aerospace contractor, Shelala holds an M.A. in International Security from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver and is a Harold W. Rosenthal Fellow in International Relations.

I contend that while Rowhani’s victory could lead to increased permeation of democracy in Iran, it is far from a certainty. Shelala interprets the election and its aftermath as follows:

Bleiweis: Unlike the 2009 presidential election which saw widespread claims of fraud, with this election there seems to be a sense of shock that the winning candidate accurately reflected the people’s choice. Is this how you view the results?

Shelala: That is an accurate assessment. The kind of unrest seen in the wake of the 2009 elections has not been seen since following this most recent election.  It does not appear that there were major cases of fraud or manipulation involved in the voting itself. But keep in mind that two prominent reform-minded candidates — Former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s chief of staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei — were prevented from running altogether.  So there are limits to the degree that this election represented the people’s choice.

Of the candidates running, Rowhani was perhaps the closest to a moderate, which may have surprised Iranians and outside observers who expected the government to actively facilitate the election of a regime loyalist, as some believe was the case with Ahmadinejad’s 2009 re-election. Some observers have suggested that the emergence of a more populist president such as Rowhani could work to the benefit of Ayatollah Khamenei.  The Arab Spring has also demonstrated that there are limits to the lifespan of insulated authoritative governments, and that a popular president could give the regime an extended lease on life.

What does this election say about the state of democracy in Iran? Is the seeming lack of interference by the Ayatollah and most influential religious clerics significant? Or is the direction of the country still controlled by a select few regardless of election results?

The process of voting in and of itself is a critical function of democracy, but there is more to democracy than casting a ballot. The Iranian Guardian Council (its clerical leadership) determined which candidates were allowed to run in this race, defining what the “moderate” camp would be by keeping key figures off the ballot as mentioned above.

As the new president assumes office, his ability to live up to the expectations of the Iranians who elected him will be limited by the fact that Ayatollah Khamanei is still the ultimate decision maker. What we saw with this election was a token and limited democratic exercise, but by no means a reflection of a democratic system.

Hassan Rowhani is seen as more moderate than those in the previous regime. Is there a chance any rights and freedoms will be expanded?

It is difficult to assess at this point what impact the change in power will have in promoting liberalization and expanded freedoms in Iranian society.  As a more moderate figure, Rowhani may push for greater freedoms within Iran. To the extent that these freedoms do not jeopardize national security or the Islamic character of the country, the Ayatollah may permit such changes – particularly if greater freedoms are necessary to give the illusion that the government functions for the good of the Iranian public. Given his insight into adaptations of Islamic law through his academic research and his national security credentials, Rowhani may be in a unique position to work with Ayatollah Khamenei to find a balance between some social liberalization and ensuring internal security.

Rowhani’s predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad held a notoriously prickly relationship with global powers, in particular the United States. Do you see Rowhani trying to mend these relationships?

There is some room for an improved relationship between Iran and those states that perceive the Islamic Republic as a threat, though one can expect those improvements to be mainly superficial. President-elect Rowhani is a speaker of English, has experience negotiating with European powers, holds a degree from a British university, and has suggested less hostile links to key states such as the United States and Saudi Arabia. However, so long as Ayatollah Khamenei retains control over foreign and national security policy, and so long as the Ayatollah remains committed to leading a state that embodies a resistance movement in the face of U.S. and Sunni Muslim power, any progress toward rapprochement may be merely rhetorical.

Syria is a case in point of the uphill battle Rowhani faces. There is no reason to believe that Rowhani’s rise to power will stop Iran’s material and personnel support to back President Assad in Syria’s civil war, as the Assad regime’s survival is a key security issue facing Iran. As long as this support continues, there will be hostility between Iran and Sunni Muslim states like Saudi Arabia as well as the United States, which seek an end to Assad’s presidency.

With regards to the United States, keep in mind that President Ahmadinejad recently expressed willingness to negotiate one-on-one with Washington, only to have the idea vetoed by Ayatollah Khamenei. While Rowhani may be open to engaging the United States, he has already held the Ayatollah’s line by expressing reluctance for one-on-one talks. Again, the Ayatollah is in a position to control the shape and extent of foreign engagement – the president is merely the public face of the regime.



Scott Bleiweis

Scott Bleiweis writes on international relations topics for FPA. He has a M.A. in democracy studies and conflict resolution from the University of Denver, and a B.A. in Politics/International Studies from Brandeis University. Scott was formerly a Fulbright education scholar in Bulgaria (views in this blog are his own, and do not represent those of the Fulbright organization or U.S. government).

Scott supports Winston Churchill's characterization of the complex form of government known as democracy: “Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”