Iranian presidential election re-energises reformists

Analysis: election of Hassan Rohani raises hopes of more pragmatic policies at home and abroad

Iranian president-elect Hassan Rohani speaks to the media following a visit to the Khomeini mausoleum in Tehran yesterday. Reuters/Fars News/Seyed Hassan Mousavi

Iranian president-elect Hassan Rohani speaks to the media following a visit to the Khomeini mausoleum in Tehran yesterday. Reuters/Fars News/Seyed Hassan Mousavi

Mon, Jun 17, 2013, 01:00

The surprise victory of a mild-mannered cleric in Iran’s presidential elections has raised hopes of more pragmatic policies at home and abroad after eight years of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s hardline populism.

Hassan Rohani, a former nuclear negotiator, garnered three times as many votes as his nearest rival to secure more than 50 per cent of the ballot, avoiding an expected runoff. Rohani, the only cleric to run for the presidency this year, was initially considered an outside bet in an election many predicted would be marked by low turnout and a shoo-in for Saeed Jalili, Iran’s hardline nuclear negotiator.

Out of 686 people registered to run, only eight – most of them drawn from the conservative camp – were approved by the Guardian Council, a body of clerics that vets all candidates.

The “no compromise” campaign rhetoric of Jalili, considered Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s preferred candidate, could not have been more different from Rohani’s talk of engagement and inclusion.

Rohani promised a “government of prudence and hope” if elected, along with a “civil rights charter” and a foreign policy based on “constructive interaction” with the world. “Let’s end extremism,” he declared.

Key to Rohani’s success was his endorsement close to election day by two former reformist presidents, Mohammed Khatami and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of those disqualified from the election.

This imprimatur gave the bespectacled cleric wider credibility and allowed him to tap into crucial demographics including the urban middle class and youth left disillusioned by the violent snuffing out of protests following the disputed re-election of Ahmedinejad in 2009.

Rohani’s victory shows that Iran’s reformist current is a force to be reckoned with – due to the support it has from the people – despite the efforts of ruling hardliners to marginalise its leaders in recent years.

Though Rohani is considered more of a moderate, centrist figure than a true reformist in the mould of Mir Hussein Moussavi, whose followers believe he was robbed of the presidency in 2009, his election has re-energised the reformist stream.


Religious establishment
The fact he comes from Iran’s religious establishment will mollify Khamenei. The Supreme Leader’s relationship with Ahmadinejad – Iran’s first non-cleric president – had become particularly strained.

In remarks following his unexpected win, Rohani called it “a victory of moderation over extremism” but, acknowledging the daunting array of challenges ahead, he cautioned that there would be “no overnight solutions” to Iran’s woes. Of primary concern to most Iranians is the dire state of the economy which has been exacerbated by tightened sanctions.

The question in Brussels and Washington is whether Rohani’s election signals the possibility of a substantive change in the standoff over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

While Rohani’s conciliatory approach certainly marks a departure from the combative style of Ahmedinejad, he still backs the nuclear programme.