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An Empty Chair and a Special Ballot

Iran's new President Hassan Rouhani (R) is accompanied by former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, as he arrives for his swearing in ceremony at the parliament, on August 4, 2013 in Tehran, Iran.. (Photo by Majid Saeedi/Getty Images)
Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani (R), is accompanied by former president Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani as he arrives for his swearing in ceremony at the parliament on August 4, 2013, in Tehran, Iran. (Photo by Majid Saeedi/Getty Images)
To well-informed observers, Rouhani’s swearing-in ceremony was undoubtedly unique and unprecedented. It is important to take into account three significant facts.

First, it was for the first time in the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran that delegations from over 52 countries attended an Iranian president’s swearing-in ceremony. Among the foreign dignitaries present there were 10 presidents, six vice-presidents, two prime ministers, and eight parliamentary speakers, as well as several prominent officials and former officials.

Among these remarkable guests, there was Javier Solana, the former European Union High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy, who also met Hashemi Rafsanjani while he was in Tehran. Rafsanjani denounced the approach taken by the Obama Administration and the House of Representatives as “dubious,” adding that no negotiations could come to fruition with threats and sanctions. But there was a key quote in their meeting: he highlighted that a new era has started in Iran’s foreign policy based on mutual respect and trust.

Second, before the swearing-in ceremony, everybody was asking whether Mohammed Khatami, the reformist former president, would attend, and whether the parliament would send him an invitation. Hardline conservative MPs and journalists began to threaten Khatami, with the Keyhan newspaper acting as their messenger. Furthermore, Khatami was absent at the endorsement ceremony in the Supreme Leader’s Office, which took place a day before the one in parliament.

That raised a big question: where was Khatami? It is no secret that he played a significant role in the election of Rouhani. Ayatollah Khamenei called the election a historic and epic event, because more than 60 percent of Iranians turned out to vote. So why did they close their eyes to the role played by Khatami?

Finally, there was another vacant seat—but this one came entirely as a surprise. Ahmadinejad did not participate in the swearing-in ceremony, even though he was the outgoing president. However, since everybody wants to forget all about Ahmadinejad and his time in office, his absence is not an important matter.

Now, let’s concentrate on Khatami’s absence. What are the reasons behind his absence, both public and hidden? It seems to me the inner circle of the government (the supreme leader and his confidants) is not really happy about Rouhani’s victory, because the architects of his victory were Hashemi Rafsanjani and Khatami.

In the last four years, all government media, including radio and TV, did its best to ignore the two men altogether, except when they were being denounced. The conservative Kayhan newspaper declared them both traitors. However, out of the blue, the inner circle of the government found out that Rafsanjani and Khatami were the real decision makers in the election, and it was Hashemi and Khatami’s influence that created the “epic” election that Ayatollah Khamenei boasted of.

Adding up Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his confidants, we arrive at a figure of around 200 people. In the recent presidential election, Jalili probably had 200 votes and Rouhani probably won only eighteen within this rarefied group—less than 10 percent of Jalili’s votes, who was the candidate of the Revolutionary Guards and Basij militia. It was also speculated that he was the favorite candidate of the leader.

This means that there is a huge gap between the two ballots—the national one and the leader’s circle. A very important question arises: do the voters of the latter want to impose its attitude on the rest of the nation? In other words, does the supreme leader really accept the result of the election? On the one hand, the supreme leader is very happy and talks about the historic participation of the nation in the election and so on. On the other hand, we saw the vacant seat of Khatami in both the Supreme Leader’s ceremony and the swearing-in ceremony in the Parliament. This illustrates that Rouhani is facing many obstacles in his quest towards democracy and freedom, some of which may be uncomfortably close to home.

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Ataollah Mohajerani
Ataollah Mohajerani entered the Iranian parliament in 1980 and served as vice president for Legal and Parliamentary Affairs under President Rafsanjani, and minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance under President Khatami. He holds a PhD in history from Tarbiat Modares University in Tehran, and is the author of several books on Iranian literature and culture and Islamic history. He currently lives in England.

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