By Sasha Meler
Celebration and jubilation reverberated across Tehran last night at the announcement of moderate cleric Hassan Rohani’s win in Iran’s presidential elections. With an alleged 72% turnout of the 50 million eligible voters, Rohani won the election with just over 50% of the vote needed in order to avoid a run-off. As the ballots were counted, it became apparent that Rohani, who wasn’t the favourite going into the elections, would defeat the 2 conservatives widely believed to be Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamemei’s favourites; Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf; Mayor of Tehran and former police commander, and hard-liner Saeed Jalili; Chief nuclear negotiator and closely linked to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.
Rohani has already signalled his willingness to re-open dialogue with the West over Iran’s controversial nuclear program. As former head of Iran’s nuclear authority, one of his key points during the live presidential debates was that Iran’s nuclear program wasn’t reported to the United Nations Security Council under his watch. Whereas current nuclear negotiator Jalili’s refusal for constructive dialogue has seen ordinary Iranians suffer under increasingly restrictive sanctions and rising inflation. During his time as nuclear negotiator, Rohani halted several parts of Iran’s nuclear activities to diminish international pressure, while maintaining Iran’s right to nuclear energy. Rohani was described as a “very experienced diplomat and politician” by former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw who dealt with him in his capacity as nuclear chief negotiator between 2003 and 2005.
Rohani has communicated his wish to work on releasing several high-ranking political prisoners, including 2009 presidential candidates Mousavi and Karobi who remain under house arrest after disputing the election results. The new president has also vowed to pass a domestic “civil rights charter”. Many Iranians are hoping Rohani’s future policies will breathe life into Iran’s lacklustre economy. Some, including Rohani’s political mentor and ex-president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani see opening up Iran’s markets to domestic and foreign investors as the way to promote growth. However, this move would bring increased competition to the nation’s powerful Revolutionary Guard who indirectly control or are affiliated with many key governmental organisations, including oil and gas, therefore it is likely that any such move will be blocked. The true power in Iran lies in the hands of the Supreme Leader who directs the judiciary and army and whose approval is needed before any major policy changes.
Many secular Iranians in both Iran and the Diaspora had planned to boycott the elections in protest to the fraudulent 2009 elections that saw Ahmadinejad secure a second term in office. Some argued the lack of votes would damage Khamenei’s image both domestically and internationally, dealing a blow to a leader who projects a united front to the West. Propaganda slogans such as “A vote for any of these candidates is a vote for the Islamic Republic and a vote of confidence in the system,” in the run up to the elections, further incensed secular Iranians.
By Tuesday however, when Mohammad Reza Aref, the only reformist in the race withdrew to avoid a split vote between moderates, former presidents and reformists Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami endorsed Rohani as their candidate. Rafsanjani who spoke out publicly against the violent crackdowns on protestors in 2009, was himself barred from running by Iran’s Guardian Council; consisting of 6 theologians and 6 jurists aligned with the regime who allow or block candidates from running. This public endorsement by 2 outspoken reformists, meant that many Iranians on the sidelines cast their votes in favour of Rohani. Some argued that the risk of not voting would be too great and that it was their duty to prevent the conservative Jalili, supposedly Khamenei’s choice, from winning the elections. Others also argued that non-violent reforms come gradually and that minor changes are better than remaining in the current situation.
It’s too early to gauge whether Rohani’s presidency will result in any significant change. After all, the elections in Iran are not without bias, there isn’t an independent body surveying the election results. The candidates are each hand picked by the Guardian Council and vetted for their ideologies, as well as their commitment to Islam and the regime, hence each candidate including Rohani hails from within Khamenei’s inner circle.
At this time, what the regime needs most in order to maintain its grip is unity within its ranks or at least a display of unity to the public. The regime remains divided following Khamenei’s endorsement of Ahmadinejad in 2009, which proved detrimental for the leader as the ex-president could not be controlled. It is unlikely that Rohani, a long-time ally of Khamenei will rock any boats. Perhaps Rohani will indeed ease the stifling economic burdens left on ordinary Iranians after 8 years of Ahmadinejad, helping to narrow the ever-increasing gap between the regime and the Iranian people. And perhaps he will also be able to ease tensions with the West by being conciliatory. Nevertheless, as many Iranians outside the voting stations remarked on Friday, ‘this is a vote between bad and worse’.
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