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How Iranians changed the PLOT of the Prez poll

June 16, 2013 17:33 IST

The Iranian people, having spoken, are asking the new administration to find a way by which sanctions can be rolled back and civility and normalcy can return to Iran's engagement with the world, says K C Singh

The last time I interacted with Iran President-elect Hassan Rouhani was sometime in late 2004 when J N Dixit, the then national security adviser, visited Tehran.

I returned to India from Tehran, where I served as the ambassador between 2003 and 2005, in October. By then, Iranian politics had already slipped into the hands of the younger, non-clerical, more radical but less-experienced hands of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s peer group.

Rouhani, in his public interactions, never betrayed any knowledge of English despite having studied for a doctorate in Scotland. He was suave, even-tempered and always well-dressed in his cleric's robes. His white turban revealed, however, that unlike those wearing a black turban, he did not trace his lineage to the Prophet's family.

For my diplomatic purposes, it was his deputy Seyed Hossein Mousavian who was a constant guide to the ebb and flow of Iranian policy in the nuclear field. One always had ready access and a clear articulation of the Iranian view in the manner one never got from the Foreign Office.

How far Iran strayed from the path of negotiation to confrontation is apparent from Mousavian himself being arrested, charged with espionage and finally released under the Presidentship of Ahmadinejad.

Mousavian since then has been ensconced at Princeton University in United States. I would not be surprised if he were to man an important position in the Rouhani government.

The question that arises is how and why did Rouhani succeed? The two electoral models available to answer this question are the last two elections involving Ahmadinejad.

In 2005, no one gave him the slightest chance of success although he had used his then position as mayor of Teheran both for populist measures as well as to create the public persona of a simple and honest politician. He was said to drive his own ramshackle car and even live in a working class neighbourhood in south Teheran.

More important was the sequence of his two-stage election. In the first round, he was second to former President Hashmi Rafsanjani with former speaker Mehdi Karroubi running a close third. I remember looking at the votes polled and doing the simple arithmetic -- that Rafsanjani was in trouble as Karroubi's election manifesto had promised a dole to unemployed youth.

His voters were the poor who were unlikely to transfer their vote to Rafsanjani. Their natural tilt would be towards Ahmadinejad. That is precisely what happened though there were many in Tehran who were surprised that someone as seasoned as Rafsanjani would be thus trounced.

Another model of Iranian presidential elections was provided by the extremely controversial election of 2009.

Before Arab Spring, the name given to the popular unrest against authoritarian rule in the Arab world, Iran saw the flowering of the pro-democracy Green Movement, which was led by former prime minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi and former speaker Mehdi Karroubi. Both individuals were former administration figures, but their espousal of the demand that Ahmadinejad had to go brought them into confrontation with the Supreme Leader, who was backing the incumbent till that stage.

The manner in which the election was held and protests were thwarted subsequently brought, for the first time, the Supreme Leader directly into the open to support a faction. This made him the target of public ire, which in the Iranian system is tantamount to heresy. In fact, the two leaders continue to be under house arrest and may well be released by the new president.

Thus, for the Iranian regime, the options had to be one of the two. Firstly they made sure that all but two centrist candidates had their names deleted during the vetting by the Guardian's Council, which is loaded with appointees of the Supreme Leader. Opposing them was a battery of more radical individuals, two of whom had close links to the Supreme Leader. Former speaker Hadded-Adel is related to him and Jalili had formerly headed his office.

The strongest challenge was expected from former air chief and current Mayor of Teheran Mohammed B Ghalibaf. It appears that the Supreme Leader realised that the 2009 arm-twisting would not work as it may inflame an already testy public which had suffered years of high inflation and economic pressure. It was thus the 2005 formula that seemed to have been adopted.

It was expected that if Rouhani were to make it to the second round, with only one regime favourite remaining in the race by then, the combined vote of regime supporters and the usual methods of vote soliciting would ensure his defeat.

The Iranian people decided to change the plot of the play, much as they had done when Khattami won for the first time in 1997. It can be interpreted as a loss of face for the Supreme Leader or his bowing down to the will of the people within the limited choice that the Guardian's Council had made available to them.

It is nevertheless a harbinger of change, both in terms of style as well as content. Rouhani has worked under two presidents as the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council. He is the one who began the negotiating process on the nuclear issue in 2003.

His deputy, in his book Iranian Nuclear Crisis, reveals how under Ahmadinejad a more aggressive negotiating style was adopted under the illusion that the West will bend before Iran and the case would never reach the United Nations Security Council. The situation today is more complicated but Rouhani brings tremendous experience and skill to the job, which clearly his predecessor lacked.

The Iranian people, having spoken, are asking the new administration to find a way by which sanctions can be rolled back and civility and normalcy can return to Iran's engagement with the world, without national honour being compromised. It is a cry for help that would be incumbent on the new government to hear.

It is concomitantly a message to the Supreme Leader to allow more pragmatic hands to start pulling Iran away from the abyss. Of equal urgency is the Syrian crisis, as the United States has recently announced its decision to send arms to the anti-government forces.

The Rouhani presidency would also see the withdrawal of US and International Security Assistance Force personnel from Afghanistan. Can Rouhani bring disparate pressure groups - like the Revolutionary Guards whose stake in power and the economy grew exponentially under Ahmadinejad -- to a new internal balance?

For India, it is a good sign that finally a more mature leadership is emerging in Iran after a gap of eight years.

The promise inherent in the Tehran and New Delhi Declarations of 2001 and 2003 has gone unmet. India needs to urgently reach out to the President-elect, well before he takes over. This is not the time to twiddle thumbs. This may be a defining moment in bilateral relations and it needs to be seized.

K C Singh is a retired Indian diplomat

K C Singh