"This is the most democratic election in the world," proclaimed former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani on Saturday evening, after it became apparent that moderate candidate Hasan Rowhani had crossed the 50-percent threshold and was likely to be appointed Iran's next president.
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Rafsanjani, who himself was disqualified as a candidate by the Guardian Council of the Constitution, was one of outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's fiercest critics. He also targeted for criticism Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei after the previous primaries were fixed.
This time it appears that even aggressive opposition politicians, conservatives and reformists alike trust the efficient and relatively "clean" conduct of this election and even the candidate who finished second, Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, was quick to congratulate Rowhani on his victory.
It is not only Rowhani's supporters and outside observers who are surprised by his victory: Even, the intelligent, soft-spoken cleric himself did not believe he would be allowed to step into the big shoes of Rafsanjani, the disqualified reformist candidate; much less into the shoes of Rafsanjani's mentor, former president Mohammad Khatami, father of reformism in post-revolution Iran.
At first, Rowhani had to compete with another reformist, Mohammad Reza Aref, who agreed to pull out of the race at Khatami's request. This was a clever tactic that allowed the reformists to rally around one candidate, who does possesses neither the charisma nor the public status of his reformist predecessors. Running against him were five conservative candidates who split the vote amongst themselves, three of whom – Ali Akbar Velayati, Saeed Jalili and Mohsen Rezaei – are close to Khamenei. Qalibaf, who came in a distant second with 16-17 percent of the vote, did better than in previous elections but the vague platform he ran on was his undoing, despite his managerial abilities.
Before the final votes were counted, Rowhani faced three pivotal questions: whether he would succeed in surpassing the 50 percent barrier to ensure a first-round victory, whether a large number of fraudulent votes would invalidate some of the ballot boxes, and finally, whether he would be disqualified at a later stage for "harming the regime."
Rowhani's criticism of the regime - from his harsh opposition to political persecution and the widespread suppression of freedom of speech - gave rise to a pre-election demand that he be disqualified even though the Guardian Council of the Constitution had approved his candidacy. Leading members of the Revolutionary Guard warned "there could be a settling of accounts even after the election, and the candidate could be brought to trial for harming the state."
But since Khamenei publicly congratulated Rowhani for the victory, these obstacles will probably no longer stand in the way of the president-elect. It appears Iran is returning to a reformist presidency, after eight years of deep scars created by Ahmadinejad. The election results also attest to the profound rift among the conservatives, who failed to rally around one central candidate; that each of the candidates received only meager electoral support attests to the public's profound frustration and mistrust of the conservatives.
At the same time, voter turnout - about 72 percent according to the Iranian Foreign Ministry - may indicate that confidence in elections as a means for change is still solid, despite the trauma of 2009. This election, the most important in recent decades, presents Khamenei with an unusual challenge: The results indicate a strong erosion of his popularity. This is due to the major economic crisis in the country, which is itself a result of Ahmadinejad's nuclear policy and poor management. Until a crisis in their relationship began two years ago, Khamenei strongly backed Ahmadinejad and his policies through two consecutive election campaigns.
That apparently is also why Khamenei refrained from expressing support for a specific candidate prior to the election - in order to avoid greater embarrassment in case the public placed its confidence in a different candidate – as was in fact the case. Rowhani, who during Khatami's tenure was the secretary general of the National Security Council and head of the team conducting nuclear negotiations with the Western powers, brings not only rich experience and extensive knowledge on nuclear issues, but also supports dialogue with the United States.
But his victory does not guarantee a dramatic and immediate change in Iran's nuclear policy. That issue is in Khamenei's hands, and for the time being Jalili will continue to be in charge of it, as his personal representative. Nor is the president of Iran the commander over the Revolutionary Guard, which has a monopoly on decisions regarding military and strategic issues. Furthermore, handling of the serious economic crisis will require cooperation from the Parliament, where the conservatives have an absolute majority. This is a confrontational parliament that was able to block some of Ahmadinejad's crazy ideas, the question is whether it will agree to cooperate with a president who is considered a reformist, or will simply prevent his initiatives more easily.
Apparently any desire to bring about a significant change in human rights, women's rights, the suppression of press freedom, will be subject to review, and is liable to be prevented by the parliament. Nevertheless, Rowhani will be able to foster a calmer atmosphere, bring about a thaw in tensions with the West, and offer a new image of Iran as a country that is not belligerent and is not a threat to any other country, but still insists on its right to develop a nuclear program for peaceful purposes.
Rowhani will not be the president who denies the Holocaust nor one who calls for the destruction of Israel, although he considers it an enemy. In an interview with the Saudi newspaper Asharq Alawsat he said that he won't change Iran's policy towards Syria, since "defending the regime of [Syrian President Bashar] Assad is in Iran's national interest, and Syria serves as a critical frontline against Israel."
The election of President Rowhani, if he makes wise use of public rhetoric, is likely to make it easier for U.S. President Barack Obama to make the sell that diplomacy is preferable to a military attack, placing a strong brake on Israel's defense strategy. Washington, which anxiously awaited the results of the election, and forced Israel to postpone its operational plans against Iran, will now be able to assert that the policy of international sanctions was effective. Though Iran will stop developing its nuclear capacity, Washington will be able to explain that the Iranian public has demonstrated a desire for change.
That would be a correct interpretation of the election results, but the true test will be the manner in which Khamenei decides to direct the nuclear program. His dilemma is not only with the United States or Israel, but is also an internal political one: He will have to decide whether he will give the new president, who is an ideological rival, the chance to save the Iranian economy, or whether he will adhere to the "Jihad economy," which means a continuation of the painful belt-tightening and making absolutely no concessions on the nuclear question.