The Iranian people have spoken and they have done so emphatically. Last night Hassan Rowhani won Iran’s presidential election with just over 50 per cent of the popular vote and quite possibly saved his country from another four years of suffering.
The result was startling. Few, either inside Iran or abroad, gave Rowhani a chance. Instead, attention focused on the supposed frontrunners: the Mayor of Tehran, Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf and Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili – believed to be the Supreme leader Ali Khamenei’s personal choice and therefore, not unreasonably, the favorite. In the end, though, Interior Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar announced that Rowhani had received 18,613,329 of the 36,704,156 votes cast (or 50.71 per cent), Qalibaf 6,077,292 votes to take second place (16.56%) and the remorselessly uncharismatic Jalili, in third with 3,163,211 votes.
So what does this mean for Iran? Rowhani is not the reformist that some of the more excitable sections of the media would have us believe. He is a cleric loyal to the values of the Islamic Republic and personally close to Khamenei himself. But he does undoubtedly represent a clear break from eight of years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s economic incompetence and inflammatory (not to say foolish) diplomacy. If the Iranian people were looking to make a judgment on the last eight years of Iran’s political life they have done so; they have picked a man who should bring change – the question is to what degree.
The earliest signs are positive. In winning so clearly – and uncontroversially – Rowhani has a clear mandate – something Ahmadinejad in his second term (when he was fraudulently re-elected) never had. Turnout was estimated at an impressive 72.2 percent of the 50 million eligible voters – indeed, voting was extended by five hours on Friday evening to account for the huge numbers of people desperate to cast their ballot. The news your correspondent hears from Iran is that people are delighted with the outcome, especially in the cities and amongst young, women and middle-class voters.
It is instructive that crowds near Rowhani's headquarters in downtown Tehran chanted "Long live reform, long live Rowhani." While he has always been more of a moderate than a reformer, it is worth remembering that 2009’s defeated presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi – a former Prime Minister and favourite of the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Khomeini – was even less moderately inclined than Rowhani. But he was transformed from perhaps the very definition of a regime man to an outspoken critic of the Islamic Republic’s entire system of governance, seemingly in the space of a few months. People change.
Examining his last week of campaigning is also instructive and, hopefully, prophetic. In what must be seen as a bold move to garner the reformist vote, Rowhani vowed to enhance personal freedoms and gender equality for ordinary Iranians and, most critically, to try and improve Iran’s international standing, which after eight years of Ahmadinejad is at its lowest point than at any time since the 1979-1980 hostage crisis.
It is here that he can and should make his presence most clearly felt. Ahmadinejad and Khamenei brought a host of sanctions down on Iran and the people are suffering. Iran’s currency is down and inflation is up. Unemployment – especially youth unemployment – is growing in a country where three quarters of the population is under thirty. The regime’s intransigence on its nuclear program is costing the country and its people dearly. Rowhani understands this: "It is good to have centrifuges running, provided people's lives and livelihoods are also running," he declared during a recent TV debate.
Indeed, many see the election result as an unofficial referendum on Iran’s nuclear policy. Saeed Jalili, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator since 2007, has brought an obstinacy to negotiations that has resulted in more sanctions on Iran and a stalling of talks with the P5+1 (the five Security Council powers and Germany). Conversely, during his election campaign, Rowhani repeatedly stressed that while he was Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator (from 2003-2005), the country was never referred to the UN Security Council and no major sanctions were imposed.
These factors were unquestionably at the heart of his surprise victory. In the heady days of the early-to-mid 2000s the regime could rely on the nuclear program to rally people to its cause. The Bush years were a boom time for Ahmadinejad’s demagoguery – he could tell his people that the “Great Satan” was determined to destroy Iran and its nuclear program, and the White House duly played its role, threatening regime change at every opportunity. Even Iranians opposed to the Supreme Leader and his bumbling president felt duty-bound to close ranks.
But these arguments have lost traction among the people – especially since President Obama made it quite clear he had little interest in toppling the Mullahs but, rather, seeks détente. A population increasingly without jobs and increasingly unable to afford life’s basics has less sympathy for resisting the “imperial aggressor” when its own government cannot even run the country properly. Domestic mismanagement of the economy is a serious and longstanding grievance among Iranians; that the regime is accentuating this with what many regard as needlessly provocative diplomacy over its nuclear program has become almost too much to bear, and it was this that led to Rowhani’s win.
Whether Rowhani will bring the change Iran so desperately needs is yet to be seen. The extent of his reformist proclivities is uncertain and at any rate, as president he does not run the country, the Supreme Leader does. But he ran on a platform of change and the people voted for him accordingly – he knows this and so must Khamenei. For their own sake, Khamenei and those around him have to start appeasing their people or the results may be unpleasant; if not now then at some point in the future. In electing Rowhani the Iranian people made their voice heard – the Supreme Leader would do well to listen and to help Rowhani bring the change Iran so desperately needs.
David Patrikarakos (@dpatrikarakos) is a U.K.-based writer and author of the book “Nuclear Iran: The Birth of an Atomic State.” His work has appeared in the New Statesman and Financial Times, among other publications.