Behind the veil
There have been false dawns before in the Islamic Republic. For many of its people the 1997 election Mohammed Khatami as president was a sign that Iran was going to liberalise, improve its external profile, and curtail the influence of the mullahs. But Khatami, still much admired and a leader of the opposition green movement, was thwarted by hardline elements in the clerical establishment and did not live up to promise. The country’s theocratic rulers remained largely undisturbed and engineered a replacement, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, more sympathetic to their views.
On the eve of Friday’s presidential, in a move widely seen as of considerable significance, Khatami, who had opposed a boycott proposed by some of the opposition, and fellow former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani threw their weight behind the most liberal of the six candidates who had been allowed to contest the elections, Hassan Rohani.
Rohani, whose campaign slogans recall those of Khatami 15 years ago, romped home with 50.7 per cent of the vote, three times that of his nearest rival. Pre-election favourite, Saeed Jalili, the nation’s hard-line nuclear negotiator, backed by supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, secured only 11 per cent.
Whether or not he is allowed any more leeway to rule than Khatami, Rohani’s remarkable election victory has lifted a curtain on the real Iran, a country desperate for change, and has spectacularly given the lie to the spurious claims of legitimacy of the mullahs’ rule. Cracks are appearing in the edifice, and the clerical regime will find it far more difficult to crack the whip and suppress dissent in the way it did after the stolen election of 2009.
And while Israeli scepticism about any softening of Iran’s nuclear stance is legitimate – Khamenei retains control of the negotiations – Rohani’s pledge to greater nuclear transparency and repeated election commitment to improving Iran’s international relations does represent an opening to which the west should respond with nuance and generosity.