On April 11, 2013, Hassan Rowhani officially announced his candidacy for Iran’s June 2013 elections. While the list of candidates is already quite long, Rowhani’s presence is significant as he was the chief nuclear negotiator for Iran during the reformist presidencies of Ali Akbar Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami. In his announcement he said that his campaign’s message “is about saving the economy, reviving ethics, and interaction with the world.”
In the 2005 elections, which ultimately brought Mahmoud Ahmadinejad into power, Rowhani was considered a frontrunner despite never officially announcing his candidacy. Should he win in June, the world would see an Iranian President with not only a warmer attitude towards the West but a history of adept diplomacy on the nuclear issue – stark contrasts to the Iran of Ahmadinejad.
Rowhani is currently head of the minority Reformist faction of the Alliance of Experts, the 86-member body that elects Iran’s Supreme Leader. He was also head of the Supreme National Security Council under Presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami, the position under which he acted as the chief nuclear negotiator.
When Ahmadinejad was elected in 2005, Rowhani resigned his position. Since then, he has been a vocal critic of Ahmadinejad’s approach to the nuclear issue, tying Iran’s current economic woes to the Western sanctions resulting from President’s hard-line stance. As a campaign strategy this approach may play well as voters enduring economic hardship may tie their problems to Ahmadinejad’s mismanagement of the nuclear issue.
Nevertheless, analysts remain skeptical that Rowhani can win. He would first have to be authorized to run by the Guardian Council, a 12 member body which determines whether a candidate will uphold the Islamic principles of the constitution and which has disqualified previous reformist candidates on these grounds. If he passes this stage, his biggest challenge in the election would be Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, Ahmadinejad’s chief of staff and also a conservative. Though Mashaei hasn’t officially announced his candidacy, a Wikileaks cable from 2011 shows that he has been groomed as a successor to Ahmadinejad, who is constitutionally barred from running for a third term.
Perhaps in light of Iran’s economic problems, Ahmadinejad’s successor not be quite so popular and Rowhani may have a chance. Yet as we saw in 2009, even a very popular reformist candidate such as Mir-Hossein Mousavi had little chance against a regime willing to rig an election and then arrest and attack those protesting the results. If the previous election is any indication, popular dissatisfaction with Ahmadinejad means little, and Mashaei will most likely be Iran’s next president. Mousavi after all was a popular reformist candidate with the potential to shift Iran’s hard-line policies – and he is currently under house arrest.