Iranians Celebrate Surprise Rohani Win as Reason for Hope

Hassan Rohani, who criticized government intervention in Iranian lives and pledged dialogue with the world, won the nation’s presidency with enough backing to avoid a second-round vote.

Residents of Tehran celebrated into the night after it was announced yesterday that Rohani won 50.7 percent of the 37 million votes counted. Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf was second with 16.6 percent. Nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili and former Revolutionary Guards commander Mohsen Rezai followed.

The unexpected victory, after two polls in state-run news agencies predicted a close race, hands Rohani the presidency four years after a clampdown on protesters undermined the legitimacy of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election over Mir Hossein Mousavi, who is still under house arrest. Rohani, 64, will need approval from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Iran’s ultimate authority, to improve relations with the West and turn around an economy hit by sanctions over its nuclear program.

“His victory is a challenge to the status quo. Lots of Iranians, not necessarily those opposed to the current regime, were fed up with the country’s trajectory and wanted a change,” said Yasmin Alem, author of “Duality by Design: The Iranian Electoral System.”

“People who had been disillusioned saw a glimmer of hope and that translated into support for Rohani,” Alem said yesterday in a phone interview.

Tehran Celebration

“This victory was a victory of wisdom, moderation, progress, awareness, commitment and religiosity over extremism and bad behavior,” Rohani said in a statement on Iranian state television. Rohani takes office in August.

Tehran residents danced in the streets overnight, some wearing purple shirts and headbands, the color of Rohani’s campaign. Firecrackers echoed across the city, while drivers honked their car horns. Tehran’s Vanak Square was filled with thousands of people holding purple balloons, and posters of Rohani and a key supporter, former President Mohammad Khatami. Some chanted “Ahmadi, bye, bye,” referring to the outgoing president, others sang “This is Ahmadinejad’s goodbye party.”

“The era of Ahmadinejad is over,” Akbar Akbari, a 33-year-old law student, said over the roar of the crowd. “Everybody is celebrating that we’re getting rid of him.”

Rohani won about 18.6 million of the 36.7 million ballots cast, according to the Interior Ministry. About 50 million Iranians were eligible to vote.

‘Sheikh of Hope’

“Hope is back,” the pro-reform Tehran-based Shargh newspaper wrote on its front page today, with a picture of a smiling Rohani waving at a crowd of supporters. “Iran’s hello to the Sheikh of Hope,” was the message on the front page of another local daily, Etemaad. The Kayhan newspaper, whose editor-in-chief is appointed by Khamenei, focused on the large vote turnout, which it said in its editorial is indicative of “the depth of people’s trust in the Islamic Republic.”

Rohani’s win suggests a “shift of historic significance in Iran,” wrote Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy in Washington, in a blog after the vote-counting began following the closing of polling stations late on June 14. “Rohani is an ideal candidate to spearhead a new initiative to wrest Iran from its debilitating battle with the international community over the nuclear issue.”

Interest in Engaging

Western countries signaled their interest in engaging with Rohani. The British Foreign Office immediately urged him to set a new course for the country. European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said she hoped Rohani’s election will lead to a “swift diplomatic solution” to the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program.

The White House issued a statement after the Iranian vote was announced, saying the U.S. “remains ready to engage the Iranian government directly in order to reach a diplomatic solution that will fully address the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.”

“There is reason to be optimistic about Hassan Rohani’s win,” said Alireza Nader, a senior analyst in the Arlington, Virginia, office of the Rand Corp., a research group. “However, we should not let a ray of optimism turn into overwhelming hope. Iran is still effectively ruled by one man, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.”

Support for Rohani swelled in the final days of the campaign after Khatami and another former president, Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, joined forces to endorse him.

Principlist Majority

In recent years, Iranian politics has become a contest between reformists, led by Khatami, who favors social and political freedoms, and the so-called principlists, who advocate protecting the ideological principles of the Islamic Revolution’s early days. Within Iranian politics, a principlist refers to the conservative supporters of the supreme leader, and a broad coalition of the group has a majority in parliament. State-run Press TV has called Rohani a reformist.

Addressing a packed Tehran stadium last week, Rohani, who campaigned on the slogan “prudence and hope,” urged his young supporters to overcome political apathy and their frustration over the lack of jobs and to vote for him. Rohani waved a giant key at his rallies as a symbol that he will unlock closed doors. In addition to his native Farsi, he is fluent in English and Arabic, Press TV said.

“If you want Iranian officials to stop presenting inaccurate economic data, if you want the rial to regain its value, if you want the Iranian passport to be respected again, come to the ballot boxes,” Rohani told 9,000 people at a June 8 rally.

Damaged Economy

Rohani inherits an economy damaged by inflation and falling oil exports, as well as demands from voters to secure the lifting of sanctions imposed to curb Iran’s nuclear program, according to opinion polls.

Iran’s currency strengthened with Rohani’s victory, to 34,700 rials from 36,250 rials against the dollar on June 13.

All six candidates on the ballot backed Iran’s right to a civilian atomic program. Rohani has said that it was during his time as a negotiator that opportunities were created for the advancement of the country’s nuclear program. Still, he has said that technological progress shouldn’t come at the expense of public well-being.

Israeli Reaction

Israel and the U.S. have said they are ready to use force, if necessary, to ensure Iran can’t obtain nuclear weapons. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged the world to keep pressuring Iran over its nuclear program, saying at a weekly Cabinet meeting today that Israel does not “delude” itself over Rohani’s election.

Rohani has criticized Jalili for his unwavering stance in negotiations over the nuclear work. Iran maintains the technology is needed for civilian purposes, such as generating electricity and medical research.

“Though hardliners remain in control of key aspects of Iran’s political system, the centrists and reformists have proven that, even when the cards are stacked against them, they can still prevail due to their support among the population,” Trita Parsi, author of “A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran,” and president of the National Iranian-American Council in Washington, wrote yesterday in an e-mail.

The departure of Mohammad Reza Aref from the campaign on June 10 meant Rohani had the reformist platform to himself against a field of five conservatives who failed to agree on a unity candidate.

Green Movement

“The Western narrative stating that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the IRGC are all-powerful needs to be revisited,” Parsi said, referring to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. “The dismissal of the Green Movement as dead was premature and misguided.” Mousavi’s 2009 campaign became so associated with the color green that the opposition born out of post-vote protests became known as the Green Movement.

The Guards, Iran’s elite military power, expressed an “preparedness to interact and cooperate with the next administration within the framework of the assigned legal responsibilities and missions,” according to a statement carried today by Press TV.

Rohani has spoken in favor of increased freedom for the press and for non-governmental organizations. He has also called for the easing of social restrictions, criticizing the government’s “unwarranted interventions” in Iranians’ lives.

Economic Sanctions

In April, Rohani promised that his government would pursue “dialogue and interaction with the world.” He also said the economy is in a “critical” situation and that sanctions can’t be blamed for the country’s “weaknesses.”

Still, he said sanctions must be tackled for the economy to take a new direction away from a 30 percent inflation rate and unemployment that left a quarter of Iranians age 15 to 29 without jobs in the year ended March 20.

Rohani was the only cleric among the candidates. He trained as a lawyer and serves on the Assembly of Experts, the top religious body, which nominates the supreme leader. He’s also head of the Center for Strategic Research at the Expediency Council, an advisory panel headed by Rafsanjani.

The win by Rohani, who has master’s and doctor of law degrees from Glasgow Caledonian University, may help ease relations between the U.S. and Iran, Maloney said.

“The Obama administration isn’t likely to offer too much, too quick and any new president in Iran will have to proceed carefully before signing onto a deal,” Maloney said. “But it should dramatically alter the discussion and deflate the sense of urgency to some degree.”

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