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In Iran’s elections, the hard-liners lost. What comes next?

- May 26, 2017
Supporters of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani celebrate in Tehran on May 20 after he won the presidential election. (Getty Images)

More than 40 million Iranians voted last Friday in a presidential election to choose their country’s future path: between one of engagement and diplomacy with the West and one based on a self-reliant economic populism. With a 73 percent turnout, Iranians overwhelmingly chose moderate incumbent Hassan Rouhani in what was a clear defeat for the main conservative challenger, Ebrahim Raisi, and a major setback for the conservative camp.

The uncertainty and high stakes involved in the election confirms the importance of genuine electoral competition within the bounds of the Iranian political system and the serious role given to popular input and participation — as opposed to other Muslim states in the Middle East.

Scorched-earth campaign

This year’s campaign was particularly harsh as Iran’s conservatives undertook a high-powered offensive against Rouhani — far beyond their regular campaigning tactics. The degree of mobilization, campaigning, investment and consensus-building within the conservative camp was unprecedented in the past two decades — as were the serious charges against Rouhani that dragged the president and his entire administration through the mud with embarrassing corruption allegations.

These attacks pushed Rouhani headfirst into the reformist camp as he aggressively attacked the state in a bid to attract voters and gain popularity through anti-establishment rhetoric. While Rouhani had relied on the reformists since his 2013 election, he adopted their rhetoric in the final stretch of the campaign to a degree above and beyond his prior bounds.

Why would the conservatives mount such an extensive scorched-earth campaign against a strong incumbent president who lifted sanctions with the nuclear deal when there was such a high risk of loss and defeat? Was this a strategic mistake tarnishing both the conservatives’ and Raisi’s credibility? The answer lies beyond this particular election and in the larger war over the future of the supreme leadership after Ayatollah Khamenei.

Realignments within the conservative bloc

Win or lose, conservatives decided the battle lines would be drawn between true believers and the increasing amount of conservatives peeling away to join Rouhani’s moderate alliance that defines itself as “anti-extremist.” The conservatives’ strategy aimed to create unity among the faithful in the face of Rouhani’s encroaching influence and instigate a factional realignment against the sitting president. It is the tenability and success of this conservative alliance that will significantly impact the future path that Iran takes — not simply the current reelection of Rouhani to the presidency.

Indeed, Rouhani’s 2013 election and the nuclear deal were largely possible with the backing of key segments of the conservative Iranian elite — what I call the “modern theocrats” within Rouhani’s larger power triangle. Rouhani’s cross-factional alliance is a serious force in the battle of succession. If Rouhani successfully amalgamates reformists, moderates and conservatives into one cohesive whole, a broad elite consensus with a soft ideological vision and desire for global integration could dominate the state — in stark opposition to the revolutionary anti-imperialist ideology of the supreme leader and hard-liners.

Rouhani’s explicit thanking of Mohammad Khatami alongside Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri in his presidential acceptance speech could not be any more telling of the coalition he has built, all the more intriguing since Nateq-Nouri resigned from the supreme leader’s inspections office before the election in a possible sign of internal disagreements. These two figures were once the respective reformist and conservative candidates in the 1997 presidential elections, and it demonstrates the convergence of forces that has occurred between the once opposing factions in support of Rouhani. This broad alignment wants to strengthen its position to push through fundamental reforms and make a bid for the country’s third supreme leader.

For the conservatives, this would be a disaster. Their strategy was therefore to stymie any inroads of Rouhani’s popularity within conservative forces and to fully bring everyone into the anti-Rouhani camp by waging a polarizing campaign against the administration. These lines, they calculated, would need to be drawn in the sand for the upcoming major political battles on the horizon — irrespective of this particular electoral result.

The staunch attacks on Rouhani forced the president to adopt strong reformist discourse, allowing the conservatives to more easily rally the faithful against him. Directing conservative antipathy for Rouhani had been far from the case four years ago. While the likelihood of ascending to the supreme leadership for Raisi has diminished, conservatives as a whole still retain the power and have gained cohesiveness to push their own candidate for the position.

Looking to the future

Additionally, this election highlights a growing secularization and non-revolutionary, pro-Western trend in Iran — in part a result of the very success of the Islamic Republic to modernize society. The greater empowerment of voices that are sympathetic to increased interactions with the West — valuing secular academic education and emphasizing a liberal women’s rights discourse — all fly against the ideals of the Islamic revolution that pushed for an indigenous cultural movement and was the flag-bearer for anti-imperialism.

This larger secularization will only increase in time,since the conservatives have not developed alternate models of cultural production to bring about a popular change of direction — perhaps most importantly because the very ruling elites across the political spectrum, including many of the conservatives, have themselves modernized and Westernized over time.

Accordingly, a well-defined identity with clear ideological boundaries will enable the conservatives to act as a coherent opposition group and more effectively take on a moderate-reformist coalition making significant inroads in politics and society and that threatened the conservative elite.

This election demonstrated that the conservatives will fight to preserve their base, provoke polarization and make sure they are not enveloped by shades of gray where moderates can act as revolutionaries and reformists at the same time.

Payam Mohseni is the director of the Iran Project and fellow for Iran Studies at the Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He is also a lecturer in the department of government at Harvard University, where he teaches Iranian and Middle East politics.