On the campaign trail in 2013, Hassan Rouhani advocated for a less confrontational approach to the West, leading some Western media outlets to hail him as a harbinger of moderation in the Islamic Republic. His message also appealed to the politically moderate segment of the Iranian population, who wished to see sanctions lifted to allow for trade and foreign investment. These voters also responded favorably to promises to alleviate the repression of the state’s security apparatus. He thus had the potential to satisfy a yearning for new executive leadership after eight years of Ahmadinejad’s anti-Western policies.
Of the more than 680 people registered to run in the 2013 presidential election, the Guardian Council only permitted eight to enter the contest. Rafsanjani sought to run in the election, but he was portrayed as a potential collaborator with hostile powers in hardline media outlets, and the Guardian Council disqualified him. In a common refrain used to undermine reformists, the Kayhan newspaper, whose director is appointed by Khamenei, ran an editorial that read, “A divine and serious responsibility rests on the shoulders of the Guardian Council. It is to rescue Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani from a dangerous bait set for him by foreign enemies and their domestic associates.” The newspaper thus resorted to the conspiratorial thinking that colors the Supreme Leader’s suspicion of and opposition to the West, indicating how Rafsanjani had not returned to favor with Khamenei and his conservative supporters. The former hardline nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, then-Mayor of Tehran Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, and former secretary of the SNSC Hassan Rouhani emerged as the top contenders.
Rouhani provided some insurance against a public backlash against electoral manipulation as a conservative cleric running as a centrist pragmatist. He was initially an underdog candidate, whom the conservative-dominated Guardian Council would not have permitted to stand for election had the Supreme Leader viewed him as challenging his rule. Although the Supreme Leader followed his practice of refraining from explicitly endorsing any candidate, it was clear that Jalili, who had in the past proven his intransigence at the negotiating table over Iran’s nuclear program, would best fit Khamenei’s preference for steadfastness vis-à-vis Western demands.
More than 37 million people out of 50 million eligible voters cast a ballot, representing almost 73 percent voter turnout. Again hoping the Islamic Republic would chart a new course, moderates rallied around Rouhani, partly because of endorsements from heavyweights Rafsanjani and Khatami, culminating in him winning 50.71 percent of the vote and thus avoiding a run-off election. The E3 made overtures to the new president, expressing their hopes that Iran would negotiate a settlement to its nuclear program and moderate its behavior. The Obama Administration, too, viewed Rouhani’s victory as a potential diplomatic opening.