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On June 15, voters in the Islamic Republic of Iran replaced President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with Hassan Rohani. The move signaled the electorate’s desire for a change within a rigid system.
The international community expressed relief that this election appeared to have been free of violence, a welcome contrast to the 2009 ballot. Widely seen as marred by corruption, that contest’s aftermath included protests and a government crackdown.
“Mr. Rohani, a former nuclear negotiator, polled three times as many votes as his nearest rival to garner 50.71 percent of all ballots cast, enough to avoid an expected runoff. He faced down a host of conservatives in [the] vote, stating at the ballot box that he had ‘come to destroy extremism’” (The Christian Science Monitor).
Many of the nation’s citizens “planned to boycott the election because they considered their votes ‘useless’ in a rigged system, yet voted anyway—pushing official turnout to roughly 72 percent—and found their choice accurately reflected in the result” (ibid.).
Mr. Rohani is an academic, having received a doctorate from Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland with a thesis titled “The Flexibility of Shariah.” He is known for his steady temperament and diplomatic aplomb, and speaks five languages.
The new leader enters the presidency at a difficult time for Iran, viewed by many as a rogue nation and an extremist theocracy. Critics question Mr. Rohani’s role in the development of Iran’s nuclear program, which is in violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions. The program has spurred expanded sanctions against the country, spearheaded by the United States after 1979’s Islamic Revolution.
Mr. Rohani is considered a moderate, notably to the left of outgoing President Ahmadinejad. Iranians, especially younger generations, hope that his leadership will lead to drastic changes in the nation’s dealings with the rest of the world.
Yet his moderate stance must be understood in the Iranian context: “In fact, he belongs to the conservatives’ pragmatic centrist wing…since the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, in which he played a strategic role in the military command, he has not been excluded from regime institutions…he still enjoys a relationship of trust with the supreme leader [Ayatollah Khamenei, whose position is above that of president],” Financial Times stated.
Less optimistic commentators view Iranian democracy as fundamentally flawed, and any president that results from it as simply an extension of Mr. Khamenei’s apparatus. It has been widely noted that the list of presidential candidates was trimmed from 686 to six by the governmental Guardian Council. As one opinion piece in the Miami Herald stated, “The big question is why Khamenei permitted [Mr. Rohani] to win.”
At the time of this writing, no plans to lift sanctions against Iran have been mentioned by the Unites States or the many other nations that maintain them. These have created increasing hardship on average Iranians.
PBS reported, “Since early 2012, the United States has led a campaign to accelerate the pace of sanctions, focusing on Iran’s energy and financial sectors. The EU also has imposed sanctions on oil purchases from Iran. Overall, sanctions have sharply cut back oil exports, isolated Iran from international banking systems, and contributed to a big drop in the value of its currency.”
Iran’s leadership has to be wary of the discontent that can boil over into unrest, violence and—as demonstrated in 2011’s Arab Spring—regime overthrow. Some speculate that the inclusion of a centrist on the ballot was a way of placating the masses, but with no real danger of substantive changes to the republic’s currently charted course.
The transition may be the best opportunity to reset the tone of dialogue on Iran’s nuclear program. If history is a guide, the nation’s relationship with the West will remain prickly and erratic, while its historical ties with Russia will endure.