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>> The Financial Times


The Financial Times - June 17, 2013

by Roula Khalaf

It has become a habit for the people of Iran to get in the way of the regime’s election planning. In this theocracy that resorts to elections to legitimise itself, voting has shown one consistent trend over the past 15 years: the erosion of support for a radical Islamic system that thrives on confrontation.

And so the surprise was not that Iranians cast their votes for the only moderate candidate in Friday’s election, elevating the centrist cleric Hassan Rohani to the presidency. It is that the regime led by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, who had banked on a fundamentalist victory, allowed Mr Rohani to prevail.

The swell of support for the former nuclear negotiator, who was little known outside the capital, was sudden: it came in the last three days of the campaign after centrist and reformist leaders threw their backing behind him.

Denied an election victory four years ago, the reformist opposition was in no mood for another charade. The candidate it would have backed – Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president who had been closely associated with the reformist movement – was barred from running in the election, even though he is a pillar of the Islamic regime.

Last week, however, Mr Rafsanjani called on Iranians to vote for Mr Rohani, as did Mohammad Khatami, the reformist leader.

For Iranians, Mr Rohani therefore came to embody the opportunity for a reformist-centrist political comeback in a regime controlled by hardliners and the hope of a less militant and more effective government at a time of growing economic hardship and biting international sanctions.

Mr Rohani was so far ahead of his fundamentalist rivals that a mere massaging of the results would not have been enough. With more than 50 per cent of the vote securing his victory in the first round, playing the fraud card could have sparked another wave of street unrest and dealt another damaging blow to the supreme leader’s authority.

Moreover, the protest vote against fundamentalist candidates was so strong that Mr Khamenei might have finally recognised that the depth of disillusionment with hardline policies posed a greater risk to his regime than a Rohani presidency.

Although this was not the outcome he had bet on, the election of Mr Rohani need not be against the interests of the supreme leader at a time when Iran is under immense western pressure.

Ali Vaez, Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, says Mr Rohani’s victory has helped the system restore its electoral legitimacy and redeem itself after the 2009 crisis.

As the ground shifts, he argues, it becomes more difficult for outside actors to impose sanctions or launch strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities.

“We don’t know what motivated Ayatollah Khamenei to allow Rohani to enter the race, gain momentum and win. But I don’t think this outcome was possible without Khamenei’s consent,” he says.

The return of the reformists and centrists to the fore will be seen as a threat by the supreme leader and tensions within the system are to be expected. But Mr Rohani has made a point of emphasising that he enjoyed a good relationship with Mr Khamenei, who had appointed him as his representative on the Supreme National Security Council, a body that he had also previously run.

What this election means for Iran, in both domestic and international politics, is a return to more pragmatic policies, away from the extremism and the economic mismanagement of the past eight years under Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad.

But to improve Iran’s economic prospects, Mr Rohani needs an easing of international sanctions, which have slashed Iran’s oil exports and choked the economy. This will only be achieved if Tehran strikes a deal with international powers.

Western governments will welcome Mr Rohani as a leader they can deal with – it was under his watch as chief nuclear negotiator that Iran had temporarily suspended its uranium enrichment a decade ago. But they know that the new president’s room to manoeuvre is constrained.

Nuclear policy will remain the domain of the supreme leader and the substance of Iran’s demands, including its insistence on the right to enrich uranium, is not likely to shift.

Some analysts argue that the leader would be more prone to compromise with world powers if the presidency were in the hands of a loyalist fundamentalist.

But the influence of a more pragmatic president who softens the belligerent tone of Iran’s diplomacy and stresses detente over defiance should not be belittled. For all the damage that Mr Ahmadi-Nejad leaves behind, his defiance, including of the supreme leader himself, demonstrated that a president could carve out more significant powers.

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