What happened in Iran election?

Is Iran about to change? Is there a chance that the conflict with the West over Iran’s nuclear program will now end?

The June 14 presidential election resulted in victory for Hassan Rouhani, a man many are labeling a “moderate” and even a “reformer.” Rouhani, a Shiite cleric, has made mostly conciliatory statements since becoming president-elect.

Undoubtedly, Rouhani can be labeled a moderate only by the standards of the Islamic Republic of Iran. He is a cleric who has been a regime insider, a member of the “Expediency Council” and has very close relations with the most conservative among the regime powerful, including the Supreme Leader.

Still, he was clearly the most moderate among the choices the voters faced, and his selection is an important development.

It remains to be seen what exactly it portends.

It’s important to remember that Iran is not a true democracy. Voters selected from among a small handful of men approved by the unelected Guardian Council. Further, the president, who nevertheless does have some democratic legitimacy, is not the most powerful man in the country. It is the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has final say on all matters.

In spite of that, the president does exert a great deal of influence.

What’s truly fascinating about the election is that Rouhani, who pledges to improve relations with the West, is becoming president because the Supreme Leader has decided to allow it. The big question is why Khamenei permitted Rouhani to win.

The last time Iranian voters tried to bring change to their country, back in 2009, the Supreme Leader made sure his preferred candidate emerged victorious. The result was the reelection of now-outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad amid massive protests accusing the government of fraud.

This time, the majority of Iranians who want change managed to elect the most moderate candidate from among their limited choices.

There are a number of reasons why this may have happened. The most promising possibility is that Rouhani won because Khamenei is ready for change.

The last few years have been extremely difficult for Iran. The social protests created bitterness and division and frayed the fabric of society. Iran’s continuing nuclear enrichment in defiance of its international commitments brought on costly economic sanctions. Sanctions have hit the economy hard, adding to social strife. Ahmadinejad’s abrasive style, his Holocaust denial and taunting of the international community have added to international isolation and mistrust.

One possibility is that Khamenei has decided the nuclear program has gone far enough and has opted to allow a man with a more conciliatory tone to become the face of Iran as it unwinds its enmity with the rest of the world and eases ties with critics at home.

A second possibility is that the relatively moderate forces inside Iran outmaneuvered the Supreme Leader. There were two moderate candidates, Rouhani and Mohammed Reza Aref. Aref pulled out just days before the election, allowing moderates to unify behind a single candidate. It is also true that Rouhani’s “reformist” platform only became evident late into the campaign, after he had been approved by the Guardians. If this is what happened, maybe Khamenei discovered Rouhani’s leanings too late to stop him. After the 2009 experience maybe he didn’t want to risk another uprising.

If that is the case, Khamenei will not allow Rouhani to go too far with his easing of social rules and foreign policy.

A third possibility is that Khamenei chose Rouhani in order to soften the regime’s image without making any changes to the country’s policies. If that is the case, it is possible that the regime plans to continue pushing ahead, as it has done for a decade, making progress towards a nuclear weapon, while creating the illusion that it is becoming much more moderate in order to fool the West into relaxing sanctions and lowering its guard.

Any of these scenarios is possible. President Obama is right to say he will not lift any sanctions unless he sees concrete evidence of a changing behavior.

It would be great news to the world if Iran is indeed becoming more moderate. But for now Rouhani says the nuclear program will continue. The centrifuges are still spinning. Tehran is still supporting Assad’s butchery in Syria, and political prisoners have not been released.

Let’s hope better, safer times are coming. But we still don’t know if anything is changing in Iran.

Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is the author of The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television.

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