Afghanistan: It's what's for dinner. (side dishes include Iran and Pakistan)
Taking a step away from Afghanistan today and taking a look at the election in Iran:
Hassan Rohani’s recent election victory has been cause for hope in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Many viewed him as the reformer candidate and the polar opposite of now lame duck president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in both style and polish. Rohani is not a firebrand and has called for moderation both within the country and in Iran’s dealings with the world.
So how did we get here? In 2009, there were widespread reports of election fixing as Ahmadinejad was surprisingly given a second term despite vocal support for reformer Mir Hussein Mousavi. The results of the ostensibly fixed election caused what is now known as the Green Movement to take to the streets, protest and ultimately be put down violently by the Iranian regime.
It’s a stark contrast to Friday’s election which saw a Rohani, the most moderate, win over the Ayatollah’s preferred choice Saeed Jalili.
Is this a step towards moderation by the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader and Guardian Council? If you can fix one election, surely you can fix another, so perhaps, this signals change. However, I’m not convinced.
My theory? Team Melli, the Iranian National Football Team, ensured victory for Rohani.
Yep. A football team.
How, you ask?
Iran has typically been a football power in Asia, but has suffered through a recent history of disappointment. After an ascendant performance at the 1998 World Cup, which included a victory against the United States, many felt Iran could become the dominant force out of Asia. However, they missed the competition in 2002 and watched continental rivals, and co-hosts, South Korea earn fourth place. Iran qualified in style for the World Cup in Germany in 2006, but did not record a victory in it’s three matches, and the team had rumors swirling around it about a rift between the players and coaches. 2010 again ended in disappointment as their qualifying campaign was cut short by a late equalizer from nemisis South Korea in their final match that barred them from South Africa. Needless to say, the Iranian people were looking for some positive news as it regarded their football on the road to Brazil 2014.
And they got it. In their last two matches they defeated Qatar 1-0 and Lebanon 4-0 to put themselves in an incredibly strong position to qualify.
How does this relate to the election?
When Iran qualified in 2005 for the 2006 World Cup, the streets filled with revelers who wanted to celebrate their nations success. In 2009, there were fears that celebrations as a result of qualification would turn to protests against the regime. However, it never came to fruition as Iran ultimately failed to qualify. In 2013, those fears reared again. The Iranian public wouldn’t stand for another fixed election, and the impending World Cup qualification on Tuesday would certainly compound on an already angry populace if the election didn’t go for Roshani.
As I beta tested this theory with a few friends in conversation after Iran’s victory against Lebanon put them on the cusp of qualification, some asked me if they thought Iranian players might try to throw the match in an act of patriotism to preserve the regime. or if the Ayatollah himself might step in and attempt to fix the match to ensure Iran did not qualify. However, even if Iran lost, an Uzbekistan loss or draw would still allow Iran to directly qualify for Brazil.
The Ayatollah had a difficult decision to make. However, it is better to endure 4 years of reformist policies, which could theoretically be undone at the conclusion of Roshani’s term, than risk losing the entire country in a protest swelled by World Cup success. This way, the Iranian people can simply celebrate both successes, and the Islamic Republic can live to see another day.
Hopefully, the next four years will set Iran up on a course to come out of the international wilderness they’ve been relegated to, and hopefully Roshani will relax some of the social policies that impede the Iranian people, but I would warn anyone to be cautious if they believe that this spells any wholesale change as far as the Ayatollah or Guardian Council is concerned. They’ve simply reverted to playing for the good of the team (in this case the Islamic Republic), despite the personal and professional headaches a reformist president will cause. There’s No ‘I’ In Team. And there’s no ‘I’ in Islamic Republic. (actually, there are three, but who’s counting?)
(Iran will play South Korea on Tuesday, June 18th, at 8am EST. An Iran win, or an Uzbekistan loss or draw will automatically qualify Iran for the World Cup in Brazil. In addition, an Iran draw and an Uzbekistan win by less than 4 goals will also seal qualification for Iran).
EDIT: After the publication of this post, Iran beat South Korea 1-0 to win Group A and automatically qualify for the World Cup in Brazil 2014.