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Iran Votes and Obama Wins

Last year, Iran and major world powers signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, a deal to terminate Iran’s nuclear weapons program. I have previously written about the non-proliferation aspects of the deal. However, an ancillary benefit of the agreement was the promise that it would empower moderates in Iran.

In 2009, we all witnessed the horror of Iran's hybrid regime. Supreme Leader Khamenei and his hardliner allies conspired to fabricate the results of the Presidential election, thereby giving the notorious Mahmoud Ahmadinejad an additional term. As a consequence, protests erupted among the youth of Tehran and other cities before a brutal crackdown.

At the time, it seemed that Iranian-American relations were destined for a new low. Ahmadinejad and his allies reinvigorated the nation's nuclear research and the US imposed a new battery of economic sanctions. It was a worrisome time as Iran's economy disintegrated. At the same time, domestic US energy production began to blossom under Obama's leadership, only adding to Iran's woes as the price for oil dropped like a rock.

This set the stage for Iran's Presidential election in 2013. Hassan Rouhani ran on a moderate platform and ultimately won as a result of the massive unpopularity of Ahmadinejad, who only brought economic woe to a once-prosperous nation. While Khamenei could have replayed his playbook from 2009, he remained cognizant of the final destiny of the ruthless dictator who ruled Iran for most of the mid-twentieth century. The repression of 2009 had taken its toll and would not be repeated. Thus, Khamenei gambled and permitted Rouhani to ascend to the Presidency.

Hardliners thought that Rouhani would be unable to fulfill his promise of reconciliation with the West. By the time the next election came, they hoped to pin any further collapse to Iran's economy on Rouhani. The message they wished to sell to the Iranian people was that power can only come through strength. It was for this reason that they would accept no compromise on Iran's nuclear aspirations. Unfortunately for the hardliners, Rouhani proved them wrong.

Last year's JCPOA brought Iran back into the world community, much to the chagrin of the hardliners. Last Friday's election posed one last chance for them to seize power. Unfortunately for Iran's right wing, they lost. While reformists will have to form a coalition with moderate conservatives to achieve a majority in the Majlis, the true prize has been the massive shift within the Academy of Experts.

The 88 member Academy of Experts (AoE) is a clerical body that provides the only check on the Supreme Leader's rule. While it is unlikely that the AoE would actually exercise its power to remove the Supreme Leader from office, their relevance is crucial in the upcoming 8 year term. Khamenei is an old man and in poor health. The chance of him being alive in 2024 when the next election occurs is quite slim. Likely, the AoE elected last Friday will choose his successor.

In full perspective, this is a terrific result given the situation 7 years ago when violence erupted in Tehran scarcely a few months after Obama took office. Republicans in the US urged Obama to publicly support the Green Revolutionary movement. Wisely, Obama resisted that temptation, realizing that making such a symbolic statement would only legitimize the upcoming brutal crackdown. Now, after an arduous diplomatic process, Obama's patience has won dividends. Conservatives in Iran are finding their positions untenable. Given the recent reconciliation, they can no longer blame America for Iran's problems. Slowly, but surely, radicalism in Iran is decaying.

With that all said, the road ahead is still going to be a bumpy one. The Guardian Council still wields significant power and remains under the control of hardliners. Already, they disqualified numerous reformist candidates from the election due to a perceived lack of Islamic zeal. Nevertheless, I think there is much to be celebrated here. The Iranian regime is changing, bit by bit. It will be fascinating to see how next year's Presidential election turns out.

Posted by Warren Porter at February 27, 2016 11:41 AM
Comment #403112

In Iran, as elsewhere in the entire world, the arc of freedom and fairness slings nations and cultures toward more progressive societies. Just as the conservative movement here will ultimately fail, so will dictatorships, fascist regimes, central governments, oligarchies, and hardline movements like ISIS. They often succeed in the short run, but the call of freedom, the power of education, and knowledge of freer societies will win out in the end.

In the meantime, you can hear those who wish to remain in their positions of power and preferred status moan loudly and cast selfish motives on the opposition that really only reflect their own character.

It is a fool’s dream to think that the future lies in bullying and domination of other societies. Showing people a better way always is the way in the long run.

Posted by: LibRick at March 1, 2016 1:01 AM
Comment #403116


I am always happy to see old faces return. Thanks for paying us a visit.

As for your comments concerning, Iran, I think you are probably right. However, the trend from despotism to liberty is not a linear one and periodic temporary regressions to tyranny are not rare. It is a duty of each one of us to do what we can to further the cause liberty abroad and home whenever we can.

Posted by: Warren Porter at March 1, 2016 2:21 AM
Comment #403133

The Iranian election results appear to favor the reformists but the link to the following article, while difficult to follow, seems to advise that it might not be what it seems:

The author makes a point about voting versus not voting as something being manipulated. My understanding of the Iranian political process seems woefully inadequate for me to make sound judgement on the viability of the outcome of the last election. I do however believe that this election outcome was President Obama’s aim in negotiating with the Iranians on the nuclear treaty.

The author of the linked article draws some conclusions regarding the politics of the USA also. The 2016 elections here might well be decided by those who choose not to vote?

Posted by: Speak4all at March 1, 2016 5:27 PM
Comment #403148


Thank you for sharing Hamid Dabashi’s opinion piece. Personally, I am highly skeptical of election boycotts. I have yet to see an example where such a boycott set the stage for an overthrow of an autocratic regime, but I am always prepared to be proven wrong.

I do however believe that this election outcome was President Obama’s aim in negotiating with the Iranians on the nuclear treaty.
Absolutely. This is precisely why my title indicates this election as a win for Obama. We can quibble that the results could have been better as Rouhani is definitely not a pro-democracy figure. However, the more moderates such as him that gain seats in Iran’s legislative bodies the better, even if we would have preferred someone with more reformist credentials.

Ultimately, there is no way to determine the true legacy of the election until the next Supreme Leader is chosen. If hardliners are still able to pull the puppet strings of the AoE, that would definitely be bad news if Khamenei gets replaced with a hardliner when he dies. Until then, we will wait and see. Fortunately, next year’s Presidential election will afford us another opportunity to see if the hardliners are willing to flex their muscles to seize power.

Posted by: Warren Porter at March 1, 2016 9:47 PM
Comment #403150

This election is a classic example of how negotiation and engagement can produce desired results. It is a big step, but it is only one step. The Obama administration’s foreign policy with Iran has been a resounding success.

Posted by: phx8 at March 1, 2016 10:55 PM
Comment #403165


Absolutely. It is a positive sign, but we won’t know the true situation until we discover whether Khamenei’s successor will allow people like Khatami into the political mainstream again.

Before ascending to be Supreme Leader, Khamenei served as President under Khomenei. There is much speculation that Rouhani himself would be viable candidate to replace him. Especially if he wins reelection next year. I still think a fair amount of skepticism is warranted when evaluating how a hypothetical supreme leader Rouhani would treat reformists. Remember, Rouhani is a moderate, but not a reformist. He might change, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Also, even in the most optimistic circumstances, it is very difficult to imagine Iran reevaluating its stances against Israel and other American allies in the Middle East. The optimal outcome is a level of liberalization akin to what has happened in China.

Posted by: Warren Porter at March 2, 2016 12:29 PM
Comment #403168

WP and phx8, we seem to be in agreement that the negotiating process used by President Obama may have affected the elections in Iran however there is much to happen yet and much to ponder on. But so far it is an encouraging development.

Not meaning to hijack the thread but attempting to keep the concept, I would be interested in both of your opinions regarding President Obama’s trip to Cuba. I have always felt that our relationship with Cuba was not conducive to a good position for us in regards to Latin America, Central America and South America. I see his advances towards Cuba as a start to addressing the Americas mentioned, in a completely different manner than has occurred in the past. Not sure what the plans are but this could be a very big development outside of the Middle East quagmire(yay!).

Personally I would like to see him announce that once the detention facility at Guantanamo has been closed, the base could be used for a variety of efforts to improve our relations with Cuba. Of course the Republican led Congress will dig in their heels and attempt to thwart his efforts at every turn but he is able to accomplish some things, don’t you think?

Sorry if this hijack isn’t what you want to discuss and I won’t pursue it if you don’t respond.

Posted by: Speak4all at March 2, 2016 3:37 PM
Comment #403223

Not a problem S4A, I am certainly excited to see Obama travel to Cuba and cement the warming relations between the two nations. However, as long as the Castros and their protoges hold the reins of power, I am not holding my breath. Cuba remains a fundamentally unfree society. Normalized relations with Europe and Canada haven’t brought any changes and I don’t think normalized relations with the US will be any different. Unsurprisingly, the key to change in Cuba will almost definitely be related to their acccess to the internet.

Posted by: Warren Porter at March 4, 2016 7:19 PM
Comment #403242

WP, thanks. While you did well in presenting the Iranian election as a change that should be applauded but tempered with cautious optimism, it didn’t seem to be a topic commenters wanted to discuss. I find it a very interesting development that should be re-visited, however I have an instinctual belief that President Obama will in his final year in office try to re-focus the American electorate away from the Middle East and more towards where we can really accomplish things. Namely the Americas, North, South and Latin. I understand there is a meeting set up with Trudeau, there is his trip to Cuba, and expect to see much more outreach to our neighbors to the south.

Yes the Castro regime is still ensconced as the preemptive power in Cuba but I feel the Cuban people are ready for change. After all the Castro’s power grab began as a revolution, there may be another on the way. Finally the USofA is going to do something about that. President Obama understands and has always used the power of the internet and social media and I expect that this will continue in this, his last year in office, and perhaps even into his ‘retirement’. Making a forceful statement in Cuba will go a long way to pouring the footings of a political approach to our neighbors to the south (all of them) will have a difficult time ignoring, that we can then build a foundation on. I expect much more of this in the coming months and look forward to the progress that can be made. It is way past the time that the USofA needs to stand up and show the rest of the Americas that we are here and we are ready to assume the mantle of leadership that has always been ours but was ignored in favor of the hornet’s nest of the ME, the problems of Europe and the Asian theater. A new twist on the Monroe Doctrine with less emphasis on who controls the region and more focus on who actually helps the region. Not sure how much interest you have in this topic but it is definitely one that has been overlooked, in my opinion.

Posted by: Speak4all at March 7, 2016 9:44 AM
Comment #403266


I am perfectly fine with the absence of comments. I hate to break it to you, but I write for my own benefit, not the benefit of commenters like you. As an American with Jewish heritage, I am quite concerned for the future of Israel. In the past decade, Iran has increasingly made motions that could pose an existential threat to that tiny Jewish nation. For this reason, I have begun to observe Iranian politics with a keen eye. Historically, Persia has been quite kind to the Jewish people, permitting them to return to their homeland after being exiled by the Babylonians. Even today, Iran has the second largest Jewish population in the Middle East after Israel.

Iran is unique among Islamic nations in the Middle East. Unlike the Arab states or Turkey, it has a long history that predates Islam. Civilization under Zoroastrian rulers existed for much longer than Muslims have been around. Indeed, the dominance of Shi’ism continues to mark Iran in contrast to their Sunni Arab neighbors. Coupled with the legacy of very heavy Western influence from the decades of rule by the Pahlavi dynasty and we have what could be a very strong American ally. Alas, that fails to be the case at the moment, but I always look forward to the surprises the future may hold. Just in the last two days, Rouhani has openly praised former President Khatami, flouting current censorship laws.

Posted by: Warren Porter at March 8, 2016 2:38 PM
Comment #403267

WP, I also do not measure my worth by the comments of others. In fact authors like yourself only give me an opportunity to comment on a topic if it interests me. I found this piece quite relative to President Obama’s perceived inability to deal with the Middle East as being as false as his perceived inability to garner support from political allies. Neither is true but perceptions are manipulated.

While I recognize your concern for the future of Israel, I myself am more concerned with the ability of our country to make progress where it is most advantageous to us and to those we deal with. I find the Middle East tiresome, repetitive and mired in centuries old dogmatic nonsense that doesn’t seem to provide any real advancements for me. I view Netanyahu’s latest rebuke to be particularly unfortunate and hope our President shows the proper amount of disconcern. Bibi’s temperament towards our President has been suspect to say the least and borders on an inability to recognize his political position from an American’s point of view, not that he seems to care. I would not consider this man an ally of our country at this point.

No I am more interested in the hemisphere our country resides in and is able to affect the most for the best benefit of doing so for our country and the region in general. I look forward to the gains that can be made in these last few months of office that President Obama can make in the Americas and hope the next President can build on that. That others don’t find that interesting puzzles me, I will add that to the list. It is my belief that the reliance on renewable energy sources will allow us to move our focus from the oil rich Middle East to the Americas. Although one should keep in mind that the whole world looks to us for leadership, we seemed to have spent an inordinate amount of time, temperament and tithing towards countries mired in millenia of religious conflict that we are unable to affect.

Thanks for the original posting and the amicable reception at my attempt to hijack it. I guess there wasn’t much interest in either except for ours. More about Iran would be interesting.

Posted by: Speak4all at March 8, 2016 4:01 PM
Comment #403268


Regarding comments:
I suspect the disinterest displayed by Watchblog’s conservatives may be related to the fact that this event has not received much attention in the conservative press. Without talking points, they would be forced to think for themselves. Prudently, many decided it simply wasn’t worth it.

Regarding Israel:
Bibi Netanyahu has been a disaster of a leader for Israel. There is a tremendous paradox between demographics, identity and liberty in Israel. Israel needs to choose a path instead of ignoring the looming problem. The day will come when Palestinians give up their current aspirations and instead demand suffrage rights. When such a day comes, Israel, as we know it today, will cease to exist. Until then, I try my best to ignore all the shenanigans and posturing that happens within Israeli politics.

Regarding a “New Monroe Doctrine”:
To be honest, I suspect East Asia will emerge as much more relevant than the Americas in the upcoming decades as the importance of Middle Eastern oil wanes. Apart from a handful of Bolivarian Socialist states, Latin America is already quite pro-American. There really aren’t any potent adversaries to be found.

On the other hand, East Asia poses increasing tension between China and American allies. Encircled by Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, China remains in a very vulnerable position. As they grow and develop, it will be interesting when they decide to directly challenge American hegemony.

Posted by: Warren Porter at March 8, 2016 4:47 PM
Comment #403270

WP, agreed on the symptom of disinterest provoked by those who only repeat talking points and without that have nothing to contribute. It’s their loss.

Agreed on Netanyahu’s disastrous term in office. I can only hope that the people of Israel can overcome his bellicose and dangerous rhetoric and policies and move forward to a peaceful resolution to their problems.

Not in agreement with your assessment of the relevance of our time spent in diplomatic relationships with other countries. I have more of a nuanced perception of our ability to affect outcomes which I expect won’t come until long after I am gone. The Americas provide us the opportunity to build on their pro-American(USofA) proclivity that we really haven’t taken full advantage of. East Asia is a hot spot, China has and will try to dominate the region. But it seems similar to the Middle East to me. These countries of East Asia have been dealing with each others grievances for millenia, we are new to their game from their perspective. The Americas are part of our political and social DNA. If we can seize the moment and build on our mutual benefits we will be able to assume a mantle of leadership for the entire region that China and the dominant countries of the Middle East and Europe can only dream of but never really ever attain. The world is watching and we need to perform beyond their expectations to our benefit. This may give them direction.

Posted by: Speak4all at March 8, 2016 5:08 PM
Comment #403271

Ultimately it is a difference in vision for America. The US can either keep its role as global hegemon, exerting its influence overseas, or it can relinquish that status to focus on its own region. Granted, it is our militaristic dominance of the Americas that permits our exploits overseas, but it is our presence in Asia that prevents China from gaining a foothold in other regions (including the Americas).

Fundamentally, East Asia is far more straightforward than the Middle East. Our allies there are all liberal Democracies with strong relations with each other (Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea). Of course, there is lingering resentment of the Japanese regarding their past imperial exploits, but this has been relatively mild compared with the tensions that routinely flare in the Middle East. Ultimately, it is a much more linear situation. North Korea and Cross-strait relations aside, so long as we support our allies, they will resist Chinese influence and remain in our sphere of influence.

Posted by: Warren Porter at March 8, 2016 6:10 PM
Comment #403284

WP, I really didn’t mean to assert that there should be some type of sea change in our international relations. I expect President Obama to be as diligent as he has already exhibited in his approach to our international relations with regards especially to the Middle East, East Asia and Europe. What I believe will happen that may make a difference is first his meeting with Trudeau (I believe tomorrow) the first Canadian Prime Minister to visit the US in 19 years(why?), then his trip to Cuba later this month (one of the points of the visit is to be able to meet with imprisoned dissidents) and then possibly (depending on the outcome in Cuba) he may attempt to meet with more Latin America countries and their leaders. This visit to Cuba will be important to the eventual outcome. If his visit is used by Cuban leadership to signal there is some type of complacency with their control over their people, it will not bode well for any other plans to make contact with other countries, friends or adversaries.

President Obama will attempt to shine a light on our differences and similarities as he so often can do, while in Cuba. Whether it is received as a gesture of diplomacy or used as some kind of leverage to mollify the Cuban leadership remains to be seen. I look forward to this venture and hold some degree of optimism of it’s success.

Posted by: Speak4all at March 9, 2016 10:00 AM
Comment #403286

Warren, you are celebrating the hope that these elections might actually mean something and that they might possibly have a positive effect on future policy.
Everybody has hope for a moderate Iran, Warren.

To claim people are disinterested simply because they haven’t received their ‘talking-points,’ is silly. Especially when Iran always seems to put a damper on things, like with their latest missile tests.

Posted by: kctim at March 9, 2016 10:39 AM
Comment #403290
Everybody has hope for a moderate Iran, Warren.

I sincerely doubt that, given the rhetoric I hear from the Right. The message seems to be that Iran is irrevocably destined to be anti-American such that any attempt to reach out to them diplomatically is futile. The truth is that the elections did happen and the hope list did win. This is really happening. Change will take time, so I don’t expect an end to missile tests anytime soon, but there really is far more reason to be optimistic today than we were 8 years ago.

Posted by: Warren Porter at March 9, 2016 12:43 PM
Comment #403303

Come on Warren. I know the elections happened and I understand how good it could be if they are indeed a sign of things to come.
I’m just saying that I can’t get to excited because Iran always seems to throw a turd in the punch bowl.

Posted by: kctim at March 9, 2016 5:59 PM
Comment #403308

Ultimately it will come down upon Obama’s successor. If the 45th President decides to break the JCPOA, then yes, another turd will be thrown into the punch bowl. However, if we continue to empower the moderates, then there is a much greater chance that Khamenei’s successor may be more sympathetic to reformists. No doubt, some things will not be changing anytime soon such as Iran’s refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist, but that is not enough to obliviate my optimism.

Posted by: Warren Porter at March 9, 2016 9:59 PM
Comment #403315

The fact that you blame the US in order to absolve Iran, says it all Warren.

Posted by: kctim at March 10, 2016 10:42 AM
Comment #403317

Should other nations forgo their own interests in order to serve American ones? No alliance is built that way. Only when American interests align with foreign ones is friendship and cooperation possible.

Posted by: Warren Porter at March 10, 2016 11:21 AM
Comment #403318

It would appear that someone needs to study history to help determine who has been spiking the punch bowl. There are many other instances in our recent history that shows the real culprit in the damaged relations with the Iranian people. Those who don’t understand the mistakes of history are bound to repeat them until they do.

Posted by: Speak4all at March 10, 2016 11:22 AM
Comment #403320

WP, looks like a good start to the Obama western hemisphere diplomatic restart tour. Now on to Cuba later this month with much more of this reasonable diplomacy, we can only hope.

Posted by: Speak4all at March 10, 2016 11:29 AM
Comment #403325

That’s where we differ, Warren. I believe friendship and cooperation are most possible when foreign interests align with our interests.
We shouldn’t forgo our own interests just to promote and further their interests.

There’s a happy medium, but it takes both sides to reach it.

“Those who don’t understand the mistakes of history are bound to repeat them until they do.”

Those who live in the past, ignore the present and hamper the future.

Posted by: kctim at March 10, 2016 12:36 PM
Comment #403326

The present is a product of the past, keep thinking that what you did in the past is alright as long as you are pleased with the present. If not look to what you may have done in the past that can help you to mold your future. Your limited abilities to understand that will only cause you more confusion of what the present represents.

Posted by: Speak4all at March 10, 2016 12:42 PM
Comment #403497

For anyone else interested in learning more about Obama’s foreign policy, please check out Jeffrey Goldberg’s must-read cover story in The Atlantic.

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Comment #403589

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