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Is Big Change Ahead In Iran? A Biography Of The President-Elect


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.

In Tehran today, the first news conference of Iran's president-elect ended abruptly when a man in the audience jumped up to protest the absence of the man many believe was elected president four years ago, Mir-Hossein Mousavi has been held under house arrest since 2011. And after the interruption, President-elect Hasan Rouhani left the stage and state television pulled the plug on the live broadcast.

Over the weekend, Rouhani won more than 50 percent of the votes, enough to avoid a run-off in a race to replace Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He's regarded as the most reform-minded of the six men on the ballot. And in contrast to the massive protest and violent crackdown that followed the election in 2009, many Iranians took to the streets this weekend to celebrate.

Mike Shuster covered the 2009 election and its aftermath for NPR. He joins us now from the studios at NPR West in Culver City, California. Mike, nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

MIKE SHUSTER, BYLINE: Oh, good to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And let me ask you, how much of a surprise was this?

SHUSTER: I think it was a really big surprise, at least it was to me. And I think a lot of people - not everyone - but a lot of people shared my expectation, which would have been that because of the rigging of the 2009 presidential election or at least the enormous amount of evidence that it was rigged, that they would do the same thing this time around to ensure that a very conservative candidate who's close to the supreme leader would be elected president or be named president, and that's absolutely not what happened.

I think to the surprise of so many, I think, many of those demonstrators, thousands of those demonstrators on Saturday night were out on the streets because they were so surprised by the fact that the one possibly reform-minded, one centrist to reform-minded candidate has been elected president in Iran I think just surprised an enormous number of people.

CONAN: Some people are saying that, wait a minute. How reformist really is he? The top leadership Iran, the Ayatollah and his leadership clique, including the Revolutionary Guards, selected those who are eligible and ruled out an awful lot of people who might have been more of a challenge.

SHUSTER: I think that's right, but they didn't eliminate Rouhani. There was - there's never an explanation of why these decisions get made. But presumably, the Guardian Council, which is a small group of conservatives, thought that Rouhani was a legitimate candidate. Now, whether they had the expectation that he could win in the first round and really thump the conservatives who were close to the supreme leader in the first round, I don't think they had that in mind. You know, there's a precedent for this, Neal, in 1997 and 2001 when Mohammad Khatami, who was definitely a reformer, was elected by a very wide margin. It really shocked the conservative establishment in Iran, and that might explain to some degree their support for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over the last eight years. And this was in - and admittedly, not as explosive a way, but this was quite similar in its impact.

CONAN: And what do we know about this new president-elect?

SHUSTER: Well, we know that he worked for a very long time in the government, that he is - many people who know him call him the diplomatic sheikh, that he was for a long time, more than eight years, possibly even as many as 16 years, he was head of the national security council in the 1990s, under then President Rafsanjani, and then after 1997 under the reformist President Mohammad Khatami. And then he was - he may have been seen as somewhat conservative within that context, and then he became the chief nuclear negotiator after Iran's nuclear program became - was disclosed publicly and negotiated a suspension of uranium enrichment activities in 2004 with the Europeans who Iran was negotiating with at that time. But he was known as a sincere diplomat, as someone who is flexible, characteristics that were completely absent in the last eight years when any kind of nuclear talks got underway.

CONAN: And what about the electorate? How big was the turn out and how important was that?

SHUSTER: Well, this was particularly the part that I had my doubts about, that the powers that be would accurately announce how many people actually voted, what the turnout was. They don't really prove this by releasing all the data, but there doesn't seem to be a significant challenge to the turnout figures right now. And the turnout figures were placed at somewhere around 70 percent of the total electorate, which is a very big turnout and a very big turnout that says a number of things. One of it says that Iranians still believe - when they're given a choice, they believe in voting for high public office. And more than that, it shows, I think, a continuity from 1997 onwards of a very large part of the electorate in Iran wanting change. I think that that is - there's no way not to come to that conclusion.

CONAN: And is it a repudiation of the Ayatollah Khamenei and of the Guardian Council?

SHUSTER: Well, I doubt that Hasan Rowhani would go that far. I don't think that he has ever used that kind of rhetoric in discussing politics in Iran. And I think that those who support him would be reluctant at least in public to go that far. But the assumption was - and now we get into speculation, but the assumption was that the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, would choose a successor and have the vote count engineered to name that successor the next president of Iran, and most people who held that view focused on Saeed Jalili who is the current nuclear negotiator and very much resistant to change and resistant to progress in talks on the nuclear side.

So there may - there are certainly - I think many voters certainly see this vote as a repudiation of the current regime. But Rowhani is as - he's been called a consummate insider and presumably he'll use that perch to pursue policies that he believes in.

CONAN: I wanted to read from a couple of op-eds commenting on the election. And this is from today's Wall Street Journal by Sohrab Ahmari who's described as an assistant books editor at the Journal and skeptical of Mr. Rowhani's moderation. He quotes him at a pro-regime rally in July 1999: At dusk yesterday we received a decisive revolutionary order to crush mercilessly and monumentally any move of these opportunist elements wherever it may occur. From today our people shall witness how in the arena our law enforcement force shall deal with these opportunists and riotous elements, if they simply dare to show their faces.

The opportunists and riotous elements Mr. Rowhani referred to were university students staging pro-democracy protests. His words at the time were widely viewed as a declaration of war. Excuse me. Beyond Iran's borders, Mr. Rowhani has largely favored resistance and nuclear defiance. The op-ed continues, during the campaign, he boasted of how during his tenure as negotiator Iran didn't suspend enrichment. On the contrary, we completed the program. On Syria, (unintelligible) Mr. Rowhani to back the ruling establishment's pro-Assad policy.

Is moderation a term we have to take with - relatively in Iran?

SHUSTER: Well, not just in Iran. In any nation, if there's change and there are candidates that come forward that claim a certain political spot in the political spectrum, you have to wait to see what they do for sure. The truth is that Iran has had a tumultuous history since that time in the late 1990s when Mohammad Khatami was president and Rowhani was his - the head of his national security council. And these are always complex matters in Iran, and I don't think we have had anyone come forward over the last 15 years or longer in Iran who you could truly say was a Westernizing, you know, who advocated Westernization of politics in Iran. That won't fly in Iran for a lot of the reasons that we already know.

But a lot of history has taken place since that time that's cited in the Wall Street Journal piece. A lot of changes occurred. It's been tumultuous, and political leaders and political characters do change or can change over time. We'll have to see where Rowhani comes down on some of these things.

CONAN: And in the Foreign Affairs magazine, Suzanne Maloney, who's at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, I think sometimes Iranian democracy has been mocked as one man, one vote, and that man, of course, is Ayatollah Khamenei. She wondered why he allowed the results to stand as just you had, Mike, earlier.

One explanation she writes is that the ayatollah simply miscalculated and found himself overtaken by events when Rowhani's candidacy surged with little forewarning. When his expectations moved off base last Friday, Khamenei could've simply opted not to risk a repeat of 2009. There is another possibility, however, one that better explains Khamenei's strangely permissive attitude towards Rowhani's edgy campaign and towards the extraordinary debate that took place among the eight remaining presidential candidates on state television just a week before the election. In that discussion, an exchange about general foreign policy issues morphed unexpectedly into a mutiny on the nuclear issue. One candidate, Ali Akbar Velayati, a scion of the regime's conservative base, attacked Jalili for failing to strike a nuclear deal and permitting U.S.-backed sanctions on Iran to increase.

The amazingly candid discussion that followed was an acknowledgement that the sanctions-induced miseries of the Iranian public can no longer be soothed with nuclear pageantry or even appeals to regional nationalism. And that suggests that in some ways, at least, the sanctions that have been imposed because of that are beginning to have a real effect on Iranian politics.

SHUSTER: I think there's a lot of wisdom in what she writes. I think that it's true that the sanctions have been very, very tough on the Iranian economy over the past year, year and a half. And Rowhani, during the campaign, really raised that and focused probably more than other candidates on Ahmadinejad's mismanagement of the economy and the conservatives' mismanagement of economy. And these things are related. They're not separate.

And it is because of Iran's nuclear program and the ongoing serious questions about it that these sanctions were put in place and are having such a terrible effect on the Iranian economy. And in the way that Rowhani talked during the campaign suggested to voters, it seems to me, that he understood the linkage between the nuclear issue and the economy. And people were suffering from the economy, and he wanted to change things along those lines as well.

CONAN: Called today for greater transparency. We're talking with former NPR foreign correspondent Mike Shuster, who's at NPR West in Culver City, California. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. But, Mike, another question that has consistently come up: How much control does the elected Iranian president have on decisions on something as vital as nuclear policy?

SHUSTER: That's a very good question. And I think with each successive newly elected president of Iran, that issue comes up constantly. And it's for the president-elect to find his or her - in this case, his own relationship with the supreme leader and what can happen. And a lot of that takes place behind closed doors.

And even if Rowhani is reform-minded or more moderate than the hardliners that had the support of Ali Khamenei in the past. He will have a relationship with Ali Khamenei. They will speak and, perhaps, negotiate between them a great deal. The speculation about why Ali Khamenei let this happen is an interesting question.

And it very well may be that there was so much turmoil in Iran after the 2009 election that Khamenei just couldn't stand to take actions that might prompt that kind of reaction in the streets again, which suggests that if that's correct or at all correct, it suggests that he might be more open to change and moderation now with Rowhani elected and having the great support of the majority of the population, at least, starting out.

CONAN: And this is from the Council on Foreign Relations from adjunct senior fellow Reza Aslan. She writes: What's that saying, you don't know what you got till it's gone? Well, after eight long years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president of Iran, I'm willing to bet even those of us who loathe the man are going to end up missing him, not just because of the comedy he providing with his bellicose rhetoric and his inane population, but because he may have been the last best hope of stripping the clerical regime of its God-given right to rule Iran.

A little bit further down, she writes: No president in the history of the Islamic Republic has so openly challenged the ruling religious hierarchy and so brazenly tried to channel the government's decision-making powers away from the unelected clerical bodies that hold sway in Iran. Under Ahmadinejad, the presidency has become a legitimate base of power in a way that it never had been before and reformist. Maybe that describes Rowhani, but a cleric too.

SHUSTER: That argument doesn't really do much for me, Neal. I don't think that Ahmad - I think Ahmadinejad, in the last couple of years of his presidency, tried to wrest power away from Ali Khamenei. And what he proved was that in the way that he tried, which was to make himself out to be an international leader of Islam more broadly and a great enemy of the state of Israel and the United States that this just didn't work.

It work in the context - the broader and more complex context of Iranian politics. So I don't think - I think Ahmadinejad is likely to simply fade away and that more or less aside from being the butt of a lot of jokes that many Iranians who voted against him the last time and wouldn't have voted for him this time won't be sad because they'll see the last of him.

CONAN: And what of those tradionalists whose candidates did not triumph in this election? The three real hardliners who got just very small fractions of the vote?

SHUSTER: A very good question and we don't know. Well, we haven't had much reaction from them to the results of this election. So I think that there's much to be learned there. There were a couple of candidates who had been leaders of the Revolutionary Guard. Where the Revolutionary Guard and its leaders comes down is very important in the overall political atmosphere in Iran. And we haven't really heard from them.

My guess is that they will support the president as long as the supreme leader supports the president and they'll wait to see what sort of politics he will pursue and what sort of economic change he wants to bring to Iran because that's very important to the leaders of the Revolutionary Guard. They have their hand in many, many important economic projects in Iran.

CONAN: Mike, as always, thank you very much for your time today.

SHUSTER: Very happy to be here, Neal.-

CONAN: Mike Shuster, a former NPR foreign correspondent with us from the studios at NPR West in Culver City, California. Tomorrow, the State Department's former top lawyer speaks out against the drone program. Harold Koh joins guest host John Donvan tomorrow in this hour. I'll be back again with Political Junkie Ken Rudin on Wednesday. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.