What’s Next After Iran’s Surprise Election Result?

Published in the Globe and Mail, June 16, 2013

The Iranian electorate has surprised us. Most Iran experts (mea culpa – me too) had confidently expected that Hassan Rouhani had little chance of victory. But then he won. Not only that, he won on the first round. Elections still matter.

So what happened? And what does it mean?

Rouhani was the only relatively moderate person amongst the six permitted to run by the cleric-dominated Guardian Council. But he is still very much a regime insider. Moreover, the Supreme Leader remains the key figure in Iran and he won’t permit Rouhani to unilaterally make significant changes on major policies.

We are thus likely to be presented with an opportunity, for the first time in several years, for quiet, serious discussions to see if compromises can be found.

Rouhani’s victory seems to have come about because all of the reform figures, such as former presidents Khatami and Rafsanjani (whose own candidacy was disallowed by the Guardian Council) coalesced around him. The five other candidates seem to have split the conservative vote. Most of all, the majority of the Iranian people took the only option they had to send a message of discontent to the regime. If the regime was counting on an apathetic fatalism to keep the people home, they miscalculated.

That the people were able to do so is a surprise in that many had expected the election to be rigged so as to produce a victory for one of the conservatives. This is what many believe happened last time in 2009. We are thus left to believe that the last Iranian election was actually more accurate than we thought, or that the regime didn’t want to rig this election and risk another round of popular unrest, especially since Rouhani is unlikely to rock the boat too fundamentally anyway, even if he is not the Supreme Leader’s first choice. Having eliminated the people who wanted real change, the system may have been willing to allow the election to run its course without interference, as any of the six candidates were people it could live with.

In terms of what to look for, major policies around such issues as the nuclear issue will remain in place, at least for now. But the tone will change. Rouhani is no firebrand and he recognises the importance of measured and careful language. In that sense, he is about as far from Ahmadinejad as it is possible to be; the days of Presidential calls for Israel to be “wiped off the map” are over.

Some will say that this is cosmetic, but tone matters. If solutions are to be found to the problems between the West and Iran, dialogue is required. Such dialogue has been especially tough in the last eight years, partly because outrageous and irresponsible rhetoric has made it difficult for those on both sides who advocated quiet diplomacy.

We are thus likely to be presented with an opportunity, for the first time in several years, for quiet, serious discussions to see if compromises can be found. That is new and welcome, but does not mean that success is guaranteed, or even likely.

Thus, what we may be on the verge of finding out is whether the U.S. and Iran are willing to meet each other half-way, and whether the political systems in both countries will accept a deal. Such a deal, if possible, would not end Iran’s nuclear programme – they will not give it up entirely – but it would place constraints on it and open it up to rigorous scrutiny, in return for the phasing out of sanctions.

It seems that U.S. President Barack Obama would be willing to accept such a deal, if the devilish details could be worked out, but many others will scream that he has sold-out. It may be that Rouhani is also open to such a deal. There have been hints that he is. But he will have to negotiate vicious internal Iranian politics to get it approved, and he is far from the most powerful player in his country’s political system.

There are hard days ahead, and much scope for failure. But the Iranian voters have bravely given diplomacy another chance.

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