Iran Moderate Wins Presidency by a Large Margin
June 15, 2013 -- Tehran — In a striking repudiation of the ultraconservatives who wield power in Iran, voters hereoverwhelmingly elected a mild-mannered cleric who advocates greater personal freedoms and a more conciliatory approach to the world. The cleric, Hassan Rowhani, 64, won a commanding 50.7 percent of the vote in the six-way race, according to final results released Saturday, avoiding a runoff in the race to replace the departing president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose tenure was defined largely by confrontation with the West and a seriously hobbled economy at home.
Thousands of jubilant supporters poured into the streets of Tehran, dancing, blowing car horns and waving placards and ribbons of purple, Mr. Rowhani’s campaign color. After the previous election in 2009, widely seen as rigged, many Iranians were shaking their heads that their votes were counted this time. In the women’s compartment of a Tehran subway, riders were astonished. “They were all shocked, like me,” said Fatemah, 58. “It is unbelievable, have the people really won?”
The mayor of Tehran, seen as a pragmatist, came in second with 18 percent of the vote, but the four hard-line conservatives aligned with the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, finished at the back of the pack. That indicated that Iranians were looking to their next president to change the tone, if not the direction, of the nation by choosing a cleric who served as the lead nuclear negotiator under an earlier reformist president, Mohammad Khatami.
Though Mr. Rowhani’s election was not expected to represent a break with Iran’s nuclear policies, voters linked him with the Khatami era, when Iran froze its nuclear program, eased social restrictions and promoted dialogue with the West, giving them hope that he would try to lead Iran out of international isolation and religious reaction. But if the election was a victory for reformers and the middle class, it also served the conservative goals of the supreme leader, restoring at least a patina of legitimacy to the theocratic state, providing a safety valve for a public distressed by years of economic malaise and isolation, and returning a cleric to the presidency. Mr. Ahmadinejad was the first non-cleric to hold the presidency, and often clashed with the religious order and its traditionalist allies.
The question for Western capitals is whether a more conciliatory approach can lead to substantive change in the conflict with Iran over its nuclear program. A willingness to talk does not mean a willingness to concede.
Ayatollah Khamenei still holds ultimate power over the nation’s civil and religious affairs, including over the disputed nuclear program. Sharif Husseini, a member of Parliament, warned Saturday that “nothing would change” in Iran’s nuclear policies. “All these policies have been decided by the supreme leader,” he was quoted as saying by the Iranian Student News Agency.
For all his reformist credentials, Mr. Rowhani backs the nuclear program, which Iran contends is for peaceful uses but which the West believes is aimed at producing atomic weapons. In a 2004 speech, which was not made public until years later, he noted that even when Iran had suspended uranium enrichment, it was able to make its greatest nuclear advances because the pressure was off. “While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the facility in Isfahan,” he said. “In fact, by creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work in Isfahan,” a crucial Iranian nuclear facility.
Still, the election results put Ayatollah Khamenei under pressure to allow changes to take place, and could allow him to make the kind of changes that might be opposed by hard-liners if they controlled all the levers of power. For the supreme leader, a weak loyal president might be less threatening than Mr. Ahmadinejad, who over time alienated the ayatollah as he consolidated his own power through the bureaucracy.
Analysts are predicting at least some change. The president does have some control over the economy — the public’s primary concern recently — and through the bully pulpit of the office he can set the tone of public debate on a variety of issues, from placing restrictions on young people’s socializing to the nuclear program.
“There will be moderation in domestic and foreign policy under Mr. Rowhani,” said Saeed Laylaz, an economist and columnist close to the reformist current of thinking. “First we need to form a centrist and moderate government, reconcile domestic disputes, then he can make changes in our foreign policy.”
A White House statement on Saturday congratulated Iranians on “their courage in making their voices heard” and urged the new government to “heed the will of the Iranian people and make responsible choices that create a better future for all Iranians.” The United States, it added, “remains ready to engage the Iranian government directly in order to reach a diplomatic solution that will fully address the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.”
As the race began, conservatives and hard-liners had first seemed to close ranks around Saeed Jalili, the nation’s hard-line nuclear negotiator and a close ally of the supreme leader. Mr. Jalili campaigned on the idea of no compromise, explicitly referring to negotiations with the West over Iran’s nuclear program, but which may also have been seen by the weary electorate in Iran as a cornerstone of his domestic intentions. He won just over 11 percent of the vote.
Mr. Rowhani, by comparison, used a key as his campaign symbol, focusing on issues important to the young, including unemployment. His message was one of outreach, responsiveness and inclusion. “Let’s end extremism,” Mr. Rowhani said during a campaign speech. “We have no other option than moderation.”
He criticized the much-hated morality police who arrest women for not having proper head scarves and coats. He called for the lifting of restrictions on the Internet. He said that “in consensus with higher officials” political prisoners would be freed.
At the time, his campaign words sounded like empty promises to many potential voters, who pointed out that Mr. Rowhani did not enjoy the support of those in power. But support from two former presidents, Mr. Khatami and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was disqualified from the election, lifted Mr. Rowhani’s status, helping him tap into the votes of millions of dissatisfied Iranians.
His appeal to the younger generation was crucial in a nation where there is an increasing divide between the millions of youths — two thirds of the 70 million population are under 35 — and the ruling hard-liners who use the morality police, Internet blocking and other harsh measures to try to mold those born after the 1979 revolution.
Many Iranians were disillusioned after the 2009 election, when millions took to the streets after a vote widely seen as rigged returned Mr. Ahmadinejad to office. The government deployed security forces to silence the opposition and placed its leaders under house arrest for years. Mr. Khamenei took sides in that dispute and at least temporarily lost his standing as an arbiter above the partisan fray, a role he can now try to reassume. Still, within the circumscribed world of Iranian politics, the public looked to the vote as a chance to push back.
Feeling defeated by pessimism and expecting Iran could only change for the worse, many Iranians awoke on Saturday anticipating that the conservative clerics and Revolutionary Guard Corps members who have been amassing power over the past years would again alter the outcome of the vote in their favor. Instead state television, which is under their control, meticulously broadcast the results that came in more slowly than usual, all showing a clear lead for Mr. Rowhani. “I thought they would trick us, engineer a runoff with another candidate and make Rowhani lose,” said Reyhan, 30, a poet.
Many Iranians who voted on Friday suggested they had mixed feelings about casting a ballot for any of the candidates carefully vetted by the ruling clerics. But they said that at least Mr. Rowhani represented a distinct change from the combative style of Mr. Ahmadinejad, who presided over a painful economic decline and international isolation. “We need to end these eight years of horror,” said Mehdi, 29, while leaving a polling station in Narmak, the neighborhood where Mr. Ahmadinejad had lived before he was elected in 2005. “I thought of not voting, but we cannot stand aside.” “Either Rowhani wins, or we leave the country,” he said as his wife nodded.
For the West, Mr. Rowhani’s election means a possible new opportunity for the long-stalled nuclear talks.
In a way, the elections were a referendum on the tactics of the talks. Mr. Rowhani was Iran’s nuclear negotiator in 2004, when Iran agreed to voluntary suspension of uranium enrichment. That suspension was reversed during Mr. Ahmadinejad’s tenure and the replacement of Mr. Rowhani with Mr. Jalili.
During the campaign, Mr. Rowhani faced scathing attacks from Mr. Jalili, who suggested that Mr. Rowhani had betrayed the country. In an important pre-election speech, Ayatollah Khamenei also implicitly warned Mr. Rowhani that it was “wrong” to think that there could be any compromise with Western nations.
But that appeared to be a misreading of Mr. Rowhani’s position. In the 2004 speech, which offered unusual insight into the otherwise opaque world of Iran’s thinking, the former chief negotiator made it clear that his goal was ultimately about mastering the nuclear process.
“If one day we are able to complete the fuel cycle and the world sees that it has no choice — that we do possess the technology — then the situation will be different,” he said. “The world did not want Pakistan to have an atomic bomb or Brazil to have the fuel cycle, but Pakistan built its bomb and Brazil has its fuel cycle, and the world started to work with them. Our problem is that we have not achieved either one, but we are standing at the threshold.”