Triumph of white turban over black: What next?


Foreign policy expert Selim Celal, wrote an article about Iranian politics one month after the presidential elections.

Selim Celal, an expert on Iran's foreign policy and domestic politics wrote an remarkable article on political developments in Iran.

You can read entire column titled 'Triumph of white turban over black: What next?' below:

One month after the Iranian presidential elections, held on May 19, the election results are still a hot topic among Iranian political elites. Even the recent twin attacks on the Iranian Parliament and Ayatollah Khomeini's mausoleum have not been able to overshadow it. However, after days of quarrelling between the interior minister, who was in charge of conducting the election, and the Guardian Council, the body that supervised the election, the latter has finally confirmed the victory of the "white-turban" Hassan Rouhani over the "black-turban" Ibrahim Raeesi.

In Shi'ism, traditionally, a syed who descends from the Venerable Fatimah, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), can symbolically wear a black turban. Besides being a syed, Raeesi is also the custodian of the Imam Reza Shrine, one of the holiest places in the Shia world located in Mashhad, Iran. However, neither his blood relationship with the prophet, nor his institutional affiliation with the household of the prophet as custodian of the shrine, could win him the presidential seat.

In fact, Raeesi himself had also felt that his religious background would not suffice in the electoral race. That is why, in order to attract young voters, he trampled many principles that he had been supporting at the personal and political levels. In this regard, the most notable example was the release of a video clip -- which was widely circulated -- showin him sitting and chatting with Tataloo, an underground rap artist.

The principled camp, which Raeesi was representing in the election, had been criticizing President Rouhani's government for tolerating artists and musical events, which the conservatives consider to be part and parcel of the Western cultural onslaught. Raeesi's father-in-law, Hujjatul Islam Alamul Huda, the imam of Friday prayers in Mashhad and the representative of the supreme leader in the city, had single-handedly stood against any musical events in the province. Now that Raeesi's popularity has been put to test in the recent election, one should advise Rouhani to test his sincerity by issuing Tataloo a permit to hold a concert in Mashhad.

Essentially, the principled and moderate-reformist camps are both on the same page with regards to their belief in the undemocratic structure of the Islamic republic. Their only difference is over the method of how to save this political system. In the foreign policy domain, the conservatives prefer confrontation while the moderate-reformists believe in compromise. By the same token, the conservative camp believes in an iron fist in the domestic domain while the moderate-reformist camp prefers a velvet fist. Therefore, no matter which approach prevails in the Islamic republic, the monopoly of power remains in the hands of the religious clergy. Therefore, nothing extraordinary should be expected out of the elections. Notwithstanding this, the 12th presidential election brought forth and highlighted several issues that warrant discussion.

There have always been question marks about the management of elections in the Islamic republic, but these questions never get attention from the Iranian establishment. The Iranian ruling elites often attribute these questions to the enemies of Iran and agents of Zionism and imperialism. But the 12th presidential election completely reversed the trend. For the first time in the history of the republic, an establishment-backed candidate put forward claims of electoral fraud.

Only a few hours after the voting started, Ibrahim Raeesi's chief election campaign official claimed that irregularities had exceeded the level of electoral offense and taken the form of organized rigging. Raeesi also wrote a letter to Ayetullah Ahmed Jannati, the head of the Guardian Council, and protested the alleged irregularities and fraud during the voting. It was also announced that he had submitted hundreds of documents to support his claim.

In addition to the criticisms of the management of the elections, the entire electoral system of the Islamic republic was somehow challenged from within the principled camp. Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his former Vice President Hamid Baqaee, whose qualification for presidential candidacy was rejected by the Guardian Council, went to the polling station together. Though it is not clear which candidate Ahmadinejad voted for, Hamid Baqaee showed his ballot papers to the reporters. Ironically, instead of writing the name of one particular officially qualified and recognized candidate, he had written Ahmadinejad's name on the ballot. Such an action from Baqaee could be interpreted as an open protest against the Guardian Council, its method of vetting the candidates, and the legitimacy of the electoral system in the Islamic republic as a whole.

The 12th presidential election also changed the orientation of the principled camp. As its name indicates, the principled camp champions revolutionary ideas and emphasizes the ideals of the Islamic republic. On the other hand, the reformist camp was born out of the left wing and focuses on egalitarianism. During their campaign, the principled candidates gave the impression of leftists and focused on economic issues. For instance, the alleged gap between the "4 percent rich" and the "96 percent poor" was highlighted by the principled candidates, not the moderate-reformist ones. It indicates an ideological crisis among the political forces in the Islamic republic.

However, the election results are now confirmed, and Rouhani will retain his seat as president of the Islamic republic for another four-year term. But he owes his victory not to his performance in the previous term, but rather to his strategy in the last few days before the election. Seeing the entire state machinery (the executive being an exception) mobilized behind Raeesi, it became a matter of life and death for Rouhani. As a result, he accelerated his criticism of the system, even to the extent of crossing red lines in certain areas. Although former President Muhammad Khatami's picture is officially banned in Iran, Rouhani conveyed Khatami's greetings to his audiences at public gatherings. He also openly talked about ending the house-arrest of the Green Movement leaders. Above all, he became critical of non-republican institutions, such as the Guardian Council, State Television, the Guardian of the Islamic Revolution Corps, etc., which are all under the direct control of the supreme leader.

Rouhani's election strategy took him to the point of no return. It is difficult to retreat from these slogans. While he would possess at most 20 percent of the power in the Islamic republic, he must deal with several important challenges. These challenges can be categorized into three major themes:

First, Rouhani has created huge expectations. Iranians expect him to stand against the encroachment of non-republican institutions and parallel authorities. These parallel structures are states within the state, and as such, miss no opportunity to undermine Rouhani's authority and challenge the writ of his government. For instance, only seven days after the election, the Guardian of the Islamic Revolution unveiled a new underground production site for ballistic missiles, apparently to assert its position as a key determinant in Iran's foreign policy. The GIR has particularly found a good opportunity to consolidate its role in foreign policy following the Tehran attacks. It has already fired a number of missiles at Daesh positions in eastern Syria. In the meantime, its spokesman emphasized that the attacks were clear warnings to Daesh's regional allies, alluding to Saudi Arabia.

Given that the president possesses 20 percent of the power at most, it would not be easy for Rouhani to bring these institutions under control, and Rouhani is aware of this. That being so, on June 3, he once again asserted that the Iranian nation accepted to have only one supreme leader and one Constitution, hence the government would not tolerate each city-one supreme leader in the country.

Second, a close analysis of the election result suggests that ethno-religious minorities, particularly Sunnis, played an important role in Rouhani's victory. In fact, the Sunnis have always been determinant in the presidential elections. But this time their role was so evident that no one could ignore it. Because of that, Shaikhul Islam Molana Abdul Hamid, de facto leader of the Sunnis, was invited to address a gathering of Rouhani's election campaign activists in Tehran on May 24. Interestingly, the core of his speech came to be a clear-cut demand for political secularism. Perhaps it was a first of its kind that the demand for political secularism was echoed by a clergyman in a government building during a political gathering. Hamid's address was well received by the audience. He was appreciated by the slogan "Salute to Molana Abdul Hamid" and clapping. Again, it was for the first time that a Sunni clergyman at the heart of the Shia capital was appreciated by a Shia majority audience on such a large scale.

However, the celebration and appreciation period is over. The establishment will not forgive the Sunnis for supporting Rouhani; it will chase them till the end. To put it another way, the Sunni community is caught in a war of elephants. The establishment will try to prove to the minorities that they wasted their votes by supporting Rouhani. Perhaps that is the reason why, only 10 days after the election, on May 30, the Sunnis' prayer hall in Tehran was occupied, vandalized, and sealed. The ethno-religious minorities expect Rouhani to use his constitutional authority to protect them from victimization at the hands of the establishment.

Finally, the real challenge of Rouhani is related to the issue of succession of the supreme leader. There is no doubt that Raeesi was the candidate of the establishment. Had Raeesi won, the supreme leader could unofficially nominate his successor and leave this world peacefully. Even some analysts speculated about Raeesi being a potential successor. However, from now on, mentioning Raeesi's name as a potential successor to the supreme leader is out of the question.

With Rouhani in the front seat of the executive for another four years, the issue of succession has become more complicated. It is perhaps for this reason that the supreme leader begrudged Rouhani a plain "congratulations" while he applauded Ibrahim Raeesi for his participation and efforts in the election.

If the 78-year-old supreme leader dies without nominating a successor, a three-member supreme leadership council would lead the country until the appointment of the new supreme leader in line with Article 111 of the Iranian Constitution. As president of the Islamic republic, Rouhani would be one of the members of the council. Not only that, Rouhani is also a member of the assembly of experts, and thus one should realize the great constitutional role he would play in that case. If that really proves to be the case, four scenarios that we can grade from the ideal to the worst can be predicted for Rouhani.

First, like Khamenei in 1989, Rouhani himself becomes the next supreme leader.

Second, like Ali Akbar Hashemi, Rouhani brings someone "from up his sleeve" and pushes him as the next supreme leader.

The third option would be to emerge as the Mikhail Gorbachev of the Islamic republic and announce the deaths of both Khamenei and the Islamic republic.

Fourth, the guardian of the Islamic Revolution would intervene to appoint its own supreme leader and then force Rouhani to step down, like what happened to Abul Hassan Bani Sadr in 1981.

The realization of any of these scenarios would be the result of a sophisticated interplay of various factors.

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