Early election returns in Iran suggest that former National Security adviser and nuclear negotiator Hassan Rouhani may have won over 50% of the vote, in which case he will have won without needing to go to a second round. Too early to tell if that is so. While it is true that the president in Iran is more like the typical US vice president and is relatively powerless, he can nevertheless set a tone and initiate policies slightly different from those of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Iran is not yet a totalitarian dictatorship, and Khamenei himself has sometimes been forced to tack with the wind. Any change will be slow and at the margins, but it could nevertheless be significant in a very polarized world.
1. People are still willing to come out and vote for president in impressive numbers, despite the widespread feeling that the 2009 polls were tinkered with by the regime in favor of populist hard liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Even if the 75% turnout claimed by the Iranian press is exaggerated, turnout was impressive.
2. The poor showing of nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili is a slap in the face both of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and of outgoing president Ahmadinejad. The most hard line of the candidates got only 13% of the vote in early returns.
3. Those who believed that Khamenei would try to fix this election for Jalili as he is accused by the Green movement of doing four years ago were mistaken. Either the Leader feels that he has sufficient control of the country to risk a mildly reformist candidate like Hasan Rouhani winning, or the turmoil the country faced in 2009 chastened him and he decided to let the public blow off steam by giving him a president he isn’t entirely happy with.
4. The US economic blockade of Iran has produced a great deal of dissatisfaction with the status quo, and status quo candidates did poorly as a result. Ahmadinejad’s easy money policies have run inflation up to 30%, and imported goods have become expensive as US sanctions badly hit the valueof the riyal.
5. The hawks in Washington will miss the quirky Ahmadinejad, who often said things that seemed buffoonish or menacing or both at once. The new president will present a much better image of Iran, which will reduce the country’s vulnerability to international hostility.
6. Hassan Rouhani, the hands-down winner as I write, promised more effective diplomacy with the West, and the Iranian public seems to have liked that message more than the obstreperousness of Jalili. Rouhani said, in al-Sharq al-Awsat:
“The Iran–US relationship is a complex and difficult issue. A bitter history, filled with mistrust and animosity, marks this relationship. It has become a chronic wound whose healing is difficult but possible, provided that good faith and mutual respect prevail. . . . As a moderate, I have a phased plan to deescalate hostility to a manageable state of tension and then engage in promotion of interactions and dialogue between the two peoples to achieve détente, and finally reach to the point of mutual respect that both peoples deserve.”
7. Rouhani has pledged more transparency about what he says is Iran’s peaceful nuclear enrichment program, aimed at producing fuel for nuclear reactors to generate electricity. He told al-Sharq al-Awsat:
“Iran has an exclusively peaceful nuclear program, which under international law is lawful and indisputable. A politically motivated campaign of misinformation has persistently attempted to cast doubts on the exclusively peaceful nature of this program. This campaign is being fueled and directed first and foremost by Israel, in order to divert international attention not only from its own clandestine and dangerous nuclear weapons program, but also from its destabilizing and inhuman policies and practices in Palestine and the Middle East. Regrettably, the Security Council has discredited itself by allowing the United States to impose this counter-productive Israeli agenda. If elected, I will reverse this trend by restoring international confidence . . . Nuclear weapons have no role in Iran’s national security doctrine, and therefore Iran has nothing to conceal. But in order to move towards the resolution of Iran’s nuclear dossier, we need to build both domestic consensus and global convergence and understanding through dialogue.”
8. Rouhani says he wants Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to hold open presidential elections in 2014. This stance is not the same as asking al-Assad to step down, but it obviously opens the door to al-Assad’s removal, since he could not possibly win such an election. The statement seems to me to imply that Rouhani could live with a post-Assad Syria. (But note that Rouhani, even if he becomes president, would not be in a position to pursue this question, since Khamenei is in charge of Syria policy and the Baath Party is not going to hold pluralist free elections.)
9. Rouhani wants to tamp down the Middle East Cold War between Iran and Saudi Arabia: “On your question regarding Saudi Arabia, I plan to reverse the recently exacerbated [and] unfortunate rivalry between the two countries into mutual respect and mutually beneficial arrangements and cooperation to enhance security and restore stability in the region.” He continues, however, to support Shiite majority rights in Bahrain, a point of contention between Shiite Iran and the Sunni countries of the Gulf.
10. Rouhani will attempt to heal the severe rift between Green Movement liberals and Khomeinist hard liners by getting Mirhossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, leaders of the 2009 protest movement, released from house arrest. He said,
“I was Iran’s national Security Advisor for sixteen years during the administrations of Rafsanjani and Khatami. Therefore, I know how to deal with sensitive issues. If elected, I will do my best to secure the release of those who have been incarcerated following the regrettable events of 2009. I know that the constitutional powers of the president in Iran do not extend to the areas outside the realm of the executive branch of the system. However, I am quite optimistic that I can muster the necessary domestic consensus to improve the present situation of Mr. Mousavi and Mr. Karrubi.”