In Iran, the transformation of the nuclear issue into a nuclear crisis brought the country to the edge of war and led to the leveraging of back-breaking economic sanctions. According to EU estimates, to date, the cost of the nuclear crisis to Iran’s economy is estimated at $800bn, while other research argues that the actual figure is $3625bn (Banisadr 2012). This has brought the country to its present situation, which is so disastrous that the current president openly confessed that not only is the government treasury empty, but it also owes a substantial sum. While external forces like the Israeli government and neo-conservatives in the US have played an important role in turning the issue into a crisis, this could not have been possible if Khamenei’s policies over the nuclear issue would not have provided them with heaven-sent opportunities.
So he led the country down a path which leaves him with no option but to submit to the demands articulated by the 5+1 countries. In another word, using the metaphor which Khomeini used when he was forced to end the Iran-Iraq war, he had to drink the ‘poison chalice of defeat’ which would lead to an end to his rule. This is unlike Khomeini, who could survive losing the war due to a combination of factors like being the leader of the revolution and a grand ayatollah, and having charisma among his supporters (although in order to survive after ordering the execution of thousands of prisoners in 1988, he had to create another crisis, the ‘Rushdie affair’.) Khamenei lacked all of these things which might have saved him. Therefore there was a need for an ‘errand boy’ who could sign the submission and act as a ‘fig leaf’ so Khamenei’s face could be saved.
The presidential election would have provided such an opportunity but only if a reasonable portion of the population could be brought back to the polls. This was an unlikely scenario since, after the rigged presidential election in 2009, the imprisonment of two main candidates, Hussein Musavi and Mehdi Karubi, and the bloody repression of protestors, the majority of people could be expected to boycott the election. Therefore there was a need to carefully engineer the “election”. Therefore, there was also a need to resort to the psychology of fear and hope in order for Khamenei to have any chance of bringing a visible percentage of the population to the polling stations. Therefore, through Council of Guardians (which is appointed by and obedient to him), the supreme leader handpicked eight candidates which filled the two opposing polls while resorting to the politics of ‘fear’ and ‘hope’. Well aware of the general public hatred against him, he presented the ‘fear’ factor through Said Jalili as one whose views were closest to his, and who had no interest in compromise, and hence in TV debates, in regard to nuclear issues.
Jalili presented combative views, and offered people the nightmare scenario as they saw that such policies would lead to the military invasion of Iran. Rouhani, on the other hand, became the representative of the ‘hope ’factor. He presented a view of moderation and compromise under the slogan of ‘hope’ and ‘prudence’. In other words, he presented policies which would lead to the removal of the military threat against Iran and a hope of lifting the paralyzing sanctions: policies which always had enjoyed the majority support. Furthermore, learning from Khatami’s election in 1997 in which a majority of people voted for unknown Khatami as they rightly believed that the supreme leader’s preferred choice was the other candidate, Nateq Nouri, the propaganda machine of the regime (with the active help of reformists) spread rumours that Rouhani followed a different policy from Khamenei – or as they say in Iran, Rouhani has angle with Khamenei. They tried to create an image that voting for Rouhani meant rejecting Khamenei’s preferred candidate. Bringing a reasonable section of the public to the voting stations was the only way Khamenei could save himself. Instead of drinking the poison chalice himself, the people would drink it instead while feeling relieved as they were saved from the wrath of Said Jalili. Endorsing such policies attracted a large section of reformists and their leaders, who see no future for themselves outside the regime. So they tried to convince their supporters that despite the imprisonment of their two leaders, they should vote in order to save the country from war and presented the image that through Rouhani’s election the reformist agenda would dominate the political scene.
Despite all of this, on the Election Day the polling stations were empty until mid-afternoon. Khamenei panicked, and in order to bring people back to the polling stations he astonishingly stated that “even those who are not supporters of the regime (should) vote for the sake of the country.” For the first time he was forced to recognise the Iranians who are against his regime. So, at the eleventh hour, enough people went to the polling stations and the queues could be beamed around the world to show that his regime still had some popular support. The counting of votes began behind closed doors and without the presence of any observers, which should have discredited the entire election. However, as the reformists were impatient to get their hands on power, they remained quiet. The world’s media, which on the whole favour a political solution to a military one-rightly so – were also expedient and turned a blind eye. The regime’s engineering of the “election” was so well planned and known to insiders that on election day Nateg Nouri, the supreme leader’s close associate, openly predicted that the election would not only not go to a second round, but that he knew who would be president and would not name him as this might be seen as an endorsement.
From the beginning of the count, Rouhani’s vote stayed close to 50% and hardly fluctuated. It seems that Khamenei had learnt a lesson from Ahmadinejad, whom he had endorsed but who ended up disobeying him. He decided that he should keep Rouhani’s percentage of winning votes in a very low margin so this fragility would discourage him from becoming disobedient.
Prior to this, less than a year before the election, Abolhassan Banisadr had reported receiving information from a close associate of Khamenei, which said that “he (Khamenei) is waiting for Mr Ahmadinejad to finish his term and then a compromise will be made and the economy will improve.” This information was in line with the revelation of some secret negotiations between the US and Iran around eight months before Rouhani became president. There were the negotiations which “produced much of the agreement later formally hammered out in negotiations in Geneva among the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, Germany and Iran.”
Given that Khamenei had already approached Obama’s administration and begun negotiations, it becomes clear that letting Said Jalili take a hawkish stance on the nuclear issue was nothing but a ‘bad cop’ move to push people towards the ‘good cop’ Rouhani. It also shows that Rouhani’s role is like that of the metaphorical lion on a flag described by Rumi, the 13th century philosopher: a seemingly strong animal with the blowing wind of the supreme leader, but one that fades in a flutter when this force dies down. In other words, he is a political errand boy for the supreme leader and has agreed to act as a fig leaf which saves Khamenei and allows voters to think that they dictated a u-turn on the nuclear issue. Their hope is that relations with the US will be normalized. However, as Banisadr wrote before the signing of the Geneva agreement, “expect a nuclear deal with Iran’s Rouhani – but not normal ties with the US” because “since the hostage crisis 34 years ago, the Iranian regime has made the United States a linchpin of its domestic and international politics. To normalize relations with the US would mean that the regime would have to deprive itself of this linchpin. For a still-powerful faction within the leadership, normalization would spell the end of the regime.” Khamenei’s latest speech, called America as a Satan that “showed the enmity of America against Iran, Iranians, Islam and Muslims” in the nuclear negotiations. Once again, he demonstrates the regime’s need to preserve an appearance of enmity with the US while maintaining a secret working relationship. Within this framework, Rouhani’s work is simply to fulfil the role which he has been assigned. Expect no divergence from Khamenei’s policies.
For Iran’s ruling regime creating crises to keep the country on its toes has become a way of compensating for its legitimacy deficit. This is why since the occupation of American embassy in 1979 and the overthrow of the country’s first elected president, Iran has constantly moved from one crisis to another. It is only rational to assume that after resolving the nuclear crisis, the ruling clergy will create others until people feel that they have had enough and decide to do something about it.