With the election of congenial pragmatist Hassan Rowhani as the next president, Iran has caught the world off-guard.
Emigres, opposition figures and diplomats had written off Friday’s vote as a preordained elevation of another anti-Western hard-liner to replace President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was ineligible to seek a third consecutive term.
But the fractious inner workings of the religious hierarchy that controls the real levers of power in the Islamic Republic conspired to advance Rowhani, the sole moderate in the six-man field. That is probably to the dismay of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who a year ago publicly accused Rowhani of making treasonous concessions to the West when he was Iran’s nuclear negotiator about a decade earlier.
The religious leaders’ acceptance of the electoral outcome -- instead of fiddling the results, as they are widely accused of having done to deprive reformers of victory in 2009 -- came as a surprise to some and has inspired hope that they recognize the dangers of growing social tensions.
Iran’s currency has lost half its value over the last year, in part because of sanctions limiting its oil trade and international banking access. Unemployment is soaring, especially among young Iranians, with as many as 40% out of work. Food shortages are worsening, especially of imported commodities on which the urban middle class relied before the economic crisis forced a sharp reduction in overseas buying.
No genuine reform advocates were allowed to run for the presidency. The main opposition figures who were denied victory four years ago remain under house arrest -- political prisoners whose plight was mentioned by Rowhani during the campaign.
Iranian emigres and Middle East analysts attribute the moderate cleric’s surprising victory to a confluence of government self-interest and popular hunger for change. The 64-year-old, British-educated Rowhani has spent decades in the religious hierarchy that has ruled Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, but he is now being hailed as a critical insider who has been empowered by his decisive victory to help ease the iron grip of the ultraconservatives around Khamenei.
“He’s not talking about fundamental reform, he’s talking about increasing social freedoms, a more diversified press, and he’s addressing the economy, which is why he was able to energize the electorate,” said Geneive Abdo, a fellow at the Stimson Center’s Middle East program.
She worries that expectations of change once Rowhani is inaugurated in August are excessive, given the resistance that can be expected from within the religious hierarchy, which controls foreign policy and holds fast to Islamic virtues.
“But you have to look at what didn’t happen,” Abdo said. “The authorities could have easily fixed the results and handed the presidency to [nuclear negotiator] Saeed Jalili or the mayor of Tehran [Mohammed Baqer Qalibaf], who both talked very hard on the nuclear issue.”
That the hard-liners around Khamenei didn’t try to steal the election suggests they are aware of the lingering resentment over the harsh crackdown on protests in 2009 ignited by the election manipulations, Abdo said. “Believe it or not, they seem to be taking public opinion into account.”
Though Rowhani has urged give-and-take on Iran’s controversial nuclear programs and departed sharply from Ahmadinejad’s combative posture toward the West, he is otherwise seen as a loyal figure in the religious leadership and unlikely to make big waves.
Then again, others note, it could be just such an insider who could nudge the hierarchy toward change.
“Rowhani went through the Khamenei vetting process, so he can’t be radically different from the others in the leadership. But it’s important to remember that [Soviet leader] Mikhail Gorbachev spent decades inside the Communist Party hierarchy and went through its vetting process. A person on the inside can sometimes have more influence than someone from the opposition,” said Najmedin Meshkati, an Iranian-born USC engineering professor and analyst of his homeland’s politics and nuclear programs.
Meshkati said he draws hope from recent work by the Iran Project, a private initiative of former diplomats and security officials committed to improving relations between Washington and Tehran. Its most recent report urges a better balance between sanctions and incentives to ease hostilities.
Suzanne Maloney of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy in Washington said Rowhani’s victory and the ruling clerics' acquiescence to it reflect “a desire by both the population and the establishment to run a national unity government, to heal the rift of 2009 and assuage some of the anxieties Ahmadinejad has provoked.”
Rowhani’s pledge Monday to make Iran’s nuclear activities more transparent was heartening, as was Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s claim in an interview with a Kuwaiti news service Tuesday that Iranian officials were open to cease the enrichment of uranium to a 20% purity level. U.S. authorities argue that such refinement isn’t necessary for peaceful uses of nuclear energy, such as power generation and medical research, and that it can be easily upgraded for use in a nuclear bomb.
“This is consistent with offers made in the past that haven’t been forthcoming when the two sides were sitting at the negotiating table,” Maloney said. “There will continue to be a ‘trust but verify’ attitude, certainly within the U.S. government. But it would be a very positive thing if we saw a serious, credible gesture from the Iranians at an early point in this new leadership.”
Though Rowhani is known to be cautious, Maloney said, he could be moved by the expectations of those who elected him to gradually chip away at the reform-resistant inner workings of the religious hierarchy.
“No one should pretend this is a shrinking violet in the Iranian presidency,” she said. “This is someone who is very tough and absolutely a creature of the system, but this is the best we were going to do in this election.”
A foreign correspondent for 25 years, Carol J. Williams traveled to and reported from more than 80 countries in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.