While Hassan Rowhani, the Islamic Republic of Iran's new president-elect, arose from none other than the country's conservative establishment, there can be little doubt that he was not the first choice of the country's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It's only one observation about a complex political development, but one that bears repeating: Iran's Supreme Leader clearly didn't simply choose his favorite candidate and appoint him to the presidency. Instead, Rowhani rode past the Guardian Council—the unelected body that whittles down candidates by shedding those unacceptable to the system—on his establishment credentials and cobbled together a coalition of reformists and so-called pragmatic conservatives. Khamenei allowed him to compete and, in the end, allowed him to win, but did not propel him there. That work was done by more than half of Iran's voters, who turned out in droves to vote for Rowhani.
It was precisely this dynamic that many observers thought impossible. Many—including reform and even anti-regime Iranians—harbored a healthy skepticism about the Iranian political system. After the 2009 presidential election, where Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won by what many say was outright election fraud and a subsequent protest movement was brutally repressed, those doubts were not unreasonable. But these observers don't all have the influence of some Washington pundits, whose skepticism was deep-seated. The announcement of Rowhani's election left them scrambling to dismiss it. These self-styled Iran experts, who come from the hawkish pro-Israel establishment in Washington, seem incapable of reading the nuances out of Tehran. They got it wrong. Now, some of them are back to tell us the outcome they couldn't predict was meaningless.
Take Mark Dubowitz, an official with the neoconservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies. On the morning polls opened in Iran, Dubowitz wrote at the Atlantic that Iran's presidential "election in reality means selection. Khamenei will remain in charge." It's true to an extent: the Guardian Council selects candidates and Khamenei retains his role. Yet Khamenei's top choice did not win. Dubowitz's picture of a one-man system impervious to any pressures (other than, of course, the sanctions that his group fights for) clearly doesn't capture the paradoxes of the Islamic Republic's system. So today Dubowitz took to the Atlantic again to declare that Rowhani's victory is just a feint, a move to buy time for building a nuclear weapon. There are a few platitudes about human rights—Dubowitz, who opposes modifying U.S. laws to permit sanctions-exempt American medicines to pass into Iran more easily, deigns to separate the "genuine" rights advocates from the poseurs—but his conclusion gets to the heart of the matter: "[T]he election of Rowhani, a loyalist of Iran's supreme leader and a master of nuclear deceit, doesn't get us any closer to stopping Iran's nuclear drive."
Dubowitz's monomania—and his disconnect from the actual rights concerns of Iranians—was on display earlier in his piece, too: "[O]n the nuclear issue, Rowhani's campaign statements are nothing to celebrate." Don't tell that to the Iranians, who poured into the streets to celebrate Rowhani's election. Atlantic editors were kind enough to furnish Dubowit'z post with a picture of the celebrations, but the actual essay omits any mention of the street parties at all! And why shouldn't it: Dubowitz predicted that street demonstrations wouldn't be tolerated by the regime but, in a classic case of projection, envisioned that those demonstrations could only be against the outcome at the polls.
The former Obama mideast adviser Dennis Ross, too, didn't fully account for the possibility of a Rowhani victory. His tack was more nuanced than Dubowitz's (Ross is much respected in D.C. pro-Israel circles, but less firmly entrenched among Iran hawks), calling for reading some tea leaves about the regime's intention despite the limited nature of Iranian elections. But, as the Iranian scholar Farideh Farhi pointed out, Ross failed completely to account for the possibility that anyone other than the hardline nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili—who reversed Rowhani's conciliatory posture after taking over his position at the negotiation table—would take the presidency. (Jalili won just 11 percent of the votes, according to official results.) Ross wrote that Khamenei's role in Presidential elections would reflect "a desire to prevent greater liberalization internally and accommodation externally. The next president of Iran will be obedient to him, and preferably act as his administrative deputy." Curious, then, that the elected candidate campaigned on "greater liberalization" and "accommodation externally"—positions he restated in his first post-election speech today.
Some of the positions staked out by Rowhani run directly against policies put in place by Khamenei, such as Rowhani's call for the release of political prisoners. The reference was to the many prisoners who remain behind bars after the post-election uprising in 2009—including, notably, Mir Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi, two leaders of the movement. These men were, of course, also denizens of the Islamic Republic establishment, and yet they led the very movement hawks have sought to cynically claim the mantle of in Washington. Yet Rowhani, Moussavi and Karroubi—not to mention the broader Iranian human rights movement—almost universally oppose the policies pushed in Washington: sanctions and war.
Iran hawks are at pains to tell us that the "moderate" label in Iran is relative, and the more nuanced among them point out that Rowhani isn't from the reformist camp. But that camp threw its support behind Rowhani, and "moderate" is always a relative label. Those who complain of these leaders' past work in the Islamic Republic—and they have been tied to dastardly crimes against their own people—fail to recognize what we saw this weekend in Iran: an election with a huge turnout, and a first-round victory for, yes, a moderate. "There clearly is an opportunity for diplomatic progress" with the U.S., wrote Paul Pillar of the developments. Who could miss this, other than either the wilfully blind or the patently disengenuous? That's perhaps why you'll see so little mention from this crowd of a report last week that Iran's foreign minister advocated engaging the U.S.—which Khamenei said he wouldn't get in the way of.
The "paradox of modern Iran," as Hooman Majd aptly subtitled his excellent 2008 book, was on full display this weekend. Is D.C. listening to the Iranian people? Washington's pundit class can ignore and dismiss the election at their own peril. Our greatest fear should lie in the specter of them ignoring it at everyone else's.