Iranians went to the polls on Friday in what turned out to be — against all expectations — a peaceful, if not entirely fair, presidential election.
The international media, analysts and even Western government officials had dismissed the election in advance as a farce, with the outcome to be determined by only one man — Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — or saw it as a tightly controlled contest among a half-dozen handpicked, indistinguishable candidates servile to the supreme leader’s wishes.
Many Iranians, too, initially saw their elections in much the same way.
But people have a funny way of defying expectations, sometimes even their own. The contest was not without meaning for a population suffering from runaway inflation, double-digit unemployment and a stifling political and social atmosphere, to say nothing of international isolation and the burdensome economic sanctions that have been imposed on them.
Despite the narrow field of candidates, voters ultimately knew that they did have a choice between the status quo and change, however modest that change might appear to foreign observers. In unexpectedly huge numbers, voters from across the social spectrum chose change in the person of Hassan Rowhani, a mild-mannered cleric and former chief negotiator for Iran’s nuclear program under the reformist president Mohammad Khatami.
Although Ayatollah Khamenei has final say on the issues that most concern the West, Rowhani’s victory is cause for optimism among Iranians, and should be seen as a source of hope for the world at large, as the Obama administration rightly, albeit mutedly, has noted. The White House chief of staff, Denis McDonough, hinted at this on Sunday, saying that if Rowhani is interested in “mending relations with the rest of the world, as he has said in his campaign events, there is an opportunity to do that.” But he added that this would require Iran “to come clean on this illicit nuclear program.”
Rowhani’s triumph — he received more votes than all five rivals combined — inspired celebrations on the streets of Tehran of a kind not seen since 2009, before the Green Movement was crushed in the uprising that followed the disputed election. Moreover, the ready acceptance of the latest election results by the supreme leader himself is indication of potential flexibility in a hard-line regime.
Rowhani is not a strict reformist in the vein of Khatami, or the Green Movement leaders Mir Hussein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi, both of whom remain under house arrest. (The president-elect has declared that he will try to secure their release.) But he has announced his ambition to bolster civil rights, bring about greater social and political freedoms at home, and avoid his predecessor’s incendiary rhetoric, unwillingness to compromise and hard-line stance on the international stage.
Whether those of us in the West approve or disapprove of Iran’s system of governance, or its foreign policy and nuclear ambitions, at least for the immediate future we will soon be dealing with a president who, unlike his predecessor, is genuinely popular.
For many Iranians the contrast between Rowhani and outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could not be more clear. Although those distinctions may appear blurred to foreigners, they are nevertheless significant and could present tremendous advantages, particularly to the United States. While a breakthrough on the nuclear stalemate is unlikely to come soon, there are areas where his proclaimed willingness to engage with the international community could produce results.
Rowhani’s views on America mirror those of many ordinary Iranian citizens: He wants to reduce the mutual hostility, and has indicated that he would even favor a normalization of relations, as long as Iran’s national interests are not compromised. In his first post-election press conference, he did not shy from his campaign promise to improve relations with the outside world. “We don’t want further tension,” Rowhani declared, adding that Iranians would “be happy to build trust and repair relations with the United States.”
On the nuclear issue he appears less absolutist than his predecessor, though he has said that his position is certainly not one of “surrender” to demands that Iran halt its nuclear program. But he has called for greater cooperation with the international community in search of a concerted diplomatic solution that will calm Western fears that Tehran is on the way to developing nuclear weapons.
A common refrain among many foreign analysts and governments is that it doesn’t matter what an Iranian president thinks or wants because his actions are restrained by the supreme leader and the vast power of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
Although the Iranian president has no direct control over security issues, including the program for nuclear development, he does set the tone on foreign policy. As chairman of the Supreme National Security Council, which advises the supreme leader, Rowhani will have a say in choosing the council secretary (and therefore Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator), and he has the ear of Ayatollah Khamenei, who has shown in the past an ability (if not always the desire) to bend in the direction of his president.
When it comes to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, its role in the Syrian crisis, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and foreign policy in general, it is unreasonable to expect a sudden U-turn. Iranian foreign policy has in the past been formed by consensus among the various power centers represented on the Security Council, currently dominated by hard-liners. Yet Rowhani’s influence will be felt, and it will doubtlessly bring a more nuanced policy to the fore.
Elated though they may be over his victory, Iranians — as sophisticated as their counterparts in the West — are not delusional about what can or will be accomplished. But they can hope that the West will be receptive to the potential that his election might bring.
Hooman Majd is author of The Ayatollahs’ Democracy: An Iranian Challenge, and of the forthcoming The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay: An American Family in Iran.