The landslide victory of the reformist candidate, Hassan Rohani, in the Iranian Presidential election has surprised many seasoned observers and renewed hope that the risk of armed conflict over Iran’s attempts to acquire a nuclear weapons capability can be averted.
Whilst Rohani’s resounding victory against several hardline opponents was unexpected, it is explicable. Although Rohani is a moderate in terms of the Iranian political spectrum, he is still a committed member of Iran’s ruling religious establishment. He poses no threat to Iran’s unique system of government that mixes rule by religious decree with elements of democracy. The post of President is subservient to the Supreme Leader, a senior clergyman who is appointed for life by the Assembly of Experts (his clerical peers) and not popularly elected. However, Rohani being permitted to run in and win the election by the current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, does suggest a recalculation on Khamenei’s part.
The main political divide in Iran is between the hardliners who favour a more dictatorial style of rule and the pragmatists, like Rohani, who believe that the preservation of the system depends on retaining broad public support for it. This public support was severely undermined by the blatant, Khamenei directed, rigging of the last election in 2009 in favour of the hardliner, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, and the violent suppression of the mass protests that followed.
Further pressure has been piled on the Iranian government since 2009 by the collapsing economy. The international sanctions that have been imposed on Iran as a result of its nuclear programme have really started to bite over the last few years and have combined with internal mismanagement to leave the country in a dire economic state.
The lesson of the Arab Spring that has taken place elsewhere in the Middle East since the last Iranian election is that the combination of a loss of public consent with a collapsing economy can be lethal for a leadership.
The fair conduct, and outcome, of the election indicates that Khamenei has absorbed this lesson and taken the opportunity to move closer, for the time being, to the pragmatists’ point of view. A popular chant amongst the crowds celebrating Rohani’s victory on Iran’s streets has been “Moussavi – we got back your votes”. This is a reference to Rohani’s predecessor as the pragmatic candidate, Mir-Hossein Moussavi, who was robbed of victory in 2009 and remains under house arrest. It also suggests that the political system has regained some credibility by showing itself to be willing and able to accept the voice of the people.
As well as representing the political will of the majority, Rohani is well-placed to negotiate a reduction in international pressure and improve the economy. Rohani obtained his Masters degree and PhD from Glasgow University and is much more worldly-wise than the current President, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, whose clownish, provocative behaviour has only increased Iran’s isolation. Rohani is well-known and respected internationally from his time as Iran’s lead negotiator with the international community on the nuclear issue, from 2003 to 2005, when he showed a more conciliatory approach than any of his successors.
This factor gives grounds for optimism that Rohani’s election will lead to a reduction in tension with the outside world. The President-elect was quick to describe his triumph as a “victory of wisdom and moderation” and to pledge an “expansion of ties” with the world. His good intentions could still easily be squashed by Supreme Leader Khamenei and other senior power brokers in Iran, as was the case during the term in office of the last moderate President, Mohammed Khatami, from 1997 to 2005. But it is to be hoped that by allowing Rohani to be elected, Khamenei has signalled that he wants to change course and that the new President will actually be allowed to implement some of his ideas.
Even if this upbeat analysis of the election turns out to be correct, the road to a peaceful settlement of the Iranian nuclear crisis will still be long and difficult. Iran and the international community will have to overcome many complex issues and their deep mutual mistrust. But Rohani’s election does at least offer the prospect of reversing the seemingly inevitable slide towards a military conflict between Iran on one side and Israel, the US and some of its allies on the other. After the experiences of the last twelve years in Iraq and Afghanistan, that is a cause for cautious celebration.