Question marks surround Iran’s Rowhani

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Is Iran about to change? Is there a chance  that the conflict with the West over Iran’s nuclear program will  now end?

The June 14 presidential election resulted in victory for Hasan  Rowhani, a man many are labelling a ‘moderate’ and even a  ‘reformer.’

Rowhani, a Shi’ite cleric, has made mostly conciliatory  statements since becoming president-elect.


Undoubtedly, Rowhani can be labelled a moderate only by the  standards of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

He is a cleric who has been a regime insider, a member of the  ‘Expediency Council’ and has very close relations with the most  conservative among the regime powerful, including the Supreme  Leader.

Still, he was clearly the most moderate among the choices the  voters faced, and his selection is an important development.

It remains to be seen what exactly it portends.

It’s important to remember that Iran is not a true democracy.

Voters selected from among a small handful of men approved by  the unelected Guardian Council. Further, the president, who  nevertheless does have some democratic legitimacy, is not the most  powerful man in the country. It is the supreme leader, Ayatollah  Ali Khamenei, who has final say on all matters.

In spite of that, the president does exert a great deal of  influence.

What’s truly fascinating about the election is that Rowhani, who  pledges to improve relations with the West, is becoming president  because the supreme leader has decided to allow it.

The big question is why Khamenei permitted Rowhani to win.

The last time Iranian voters tried to bring change to their  country, back in 2009, the supreme leader made sure his preferred  candidate emerged victorious. The result was the re-election of  now-outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad amid massive protests  accusing the government of fraud.

This time, the majority of Iranians who want change managed to  elect the most moderate candidate from among their limited choices.

There are a number of reasons why this may have happened. The  most promising possibility is that Rowhani won because Khamenei is  ready for change.

The last few years have been extremely difficult for Iran. The  social protests created bitterness and division and frayed the  fabric of society.

Iran’s continuing nuclear enrichment in defiance of its  international commitments brought on costly economic sanctions.  Sanctions have hit the economy hard, adding to social strife.

Ahmadinejad’s abrasive style, his Holocaust denial and taunting  of the international community have added to international  isolation and mistrust.

One possibility is that Khamenei has decided the nuclear program  has gone far enough and has opted to allow a man with a more  conciliatory tone to become the face of Iran as it unwinds its  enmity with the rest of the world and eases ties with critics at  home.

A second possibility is that the relatively moderate forces  inside Iran outmanoeuvred the supreme leader.

There were two moderate candidates, Rowhani and Mohammed Reza  Aref. Aref pulled out just days before the election, allowing  moderates to unify behind a single candidate.

It is also true that Rowhani’s ‘reformist’ platform only became  evident late into the campaign, after he had been approved by the  Guardians.

If this is what happened, maybe Khamenei discovered Rowhani’s  leanings too late to stop him. After the 2009 experience maybe he  didn’t want to risk another uprising.

If that is the case, Khamenei will not allow Rowhani to go too  far with his easing of social rules and foreign policy.

A third possibility is that Khamenei chose Rowhani in order to  soften the regime’s image without making any changes to the  country’s policies.

If that is the case, it is possible that the regime plans to  continue pushing ahead, as it has done for a decade, making  progress toward a nuclear weapon, while creating the illusion that  it is becoming much more moderate in order to fool the West into  relaxing sanctions and lowering its guard.

Any of these scenarios is possible. President Barack Obama is  right to say he will not lift any sanctions unless he sees concrete  evidence of a changing behaviour.

It would be great news to the world if Iran is indeed becoming  more moderate. But for now Rowhani says the nuclear program will  continue. The centrifuges are still spinning.

Tehran is still supporting Bashar Assad’s butchery in Syria, and  political prisoners have not been released.

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