Iranians danced in the streets after Hassan Rowhani, a moderate cleric and a former chief nuclear negotiator, was elected President after elections on Friday, June 14th. Reports of women removing their headscarves and a group cheering “Ahmadi Bye Bye” were in vivid contrast to the mass demonstrations, and the violence, that followed the 2009 re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that brought in four more years of conservative rule.
Rowhani’s “landslide victory” was a surprise. His candidacy had been overshadowed by the disqualification of his political ally, former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. The reformists only put their support behind Rowhani two days before the election; a lesser-known reformist candidate, Mohammad Reza Aref, withdrew from the race so as not to split the reformist vote.
On Saturday night, Iran’s interior minister, Mostafa Mohammad-Najjar, appeared on state television and annouced that 72 percent of 50 million eligible Iranians had voted. By winning just over 50 percent of the vote and more than twice of the runner-up, Rowhani was given a solid victory.
In campaigning, Rowhani had spoken of “moderation, technocracy and rapprochement with the West” and of easing Iran’s isolation. Speaking on Monday for the first time since the election, Rowhani described the non-existent relationship between the U.S. and Iran as “an old wound, which must be healed” and called for a reduction of tensions. He spoke of increased openness in order to lift economic sanctions against the country that have been detrimental to its economy and emphasized that “people are in instant need of basic staples.” Without giving details, Rowhani said that his government would address food prices and rising unemployment.
The U.S. issued a cautious statement that congratulated Iranians and noted that it seeks to “engage the Iranian government directly” about Iran’s nuclear program. In an interview with Charlie Rose on Sunday, President Barack Obama also spoke of a “hunger within Iran to engage with the international community in a more positive way.”
Noting that hardliners remain in control of many key aspects of Iran’s political system, Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council said that “centrists and reformists have proven that even when the cards are stacked against them they can still prevail due to their support among the population.” Indeed, turnout was so high that polling stations stayed open an extra five hours. Rowhani’s conservative opponents, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the Revolutionary Guard have all expressed support for him.
While Rowhani, known as a pragmatist, might ease Iran’s repressive society, he has not proposed any changes in the country’s foreign policy; in his speech on Monday, he said that the conflict in Syria should be decided by its own people. In keeping with his predecessors and in contrast to what he had said as a nuclear negotiator, Rowhani said that he would not suspend uranium enrichment. Rowhani as President means “no change of course in the substance of the Islamic Republic’s regime” as he is “very much an establishment figure,” the Economist underscores. Indeed, he could be “no less dangerous” than his predecessor, says Forbes.
Scenes of celebrations in the streets of Tehran were certainly in contrast to those of riot police aiming water canons at protesters in Turkey. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been “skillfully pushing a narrative of Turkey as a modern meld of Islam and democracy” but now has been hastening to do “damage control” and to cordon off Gezi Park, which protesters had occupied for three weeks until they were forced out. Erdogan, who plans to run for President in 2014, is “no longer assured a victory from an increasingly energized electorate,” Foreign Policy observes.
Democracy does work: now for the next step for Rowhani when he takes over in August — carrying out campaign promises.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons