According to the official election results the cleric, Hassan Rowhani, 64, won, surprisingly, a convincing 50.7 percent of the vote in the six-way presidential race. This represents a stinging repudiation of the ultraconservatives who wield power in Iran. Even worse, the four hard-line conservatives aligned with the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, finished at the back of the pack. Mr. Rowhani’s election highlight two important issues: Iranian voters linked him with the President Khatami era (1997-2005), when Iran froze its nuclear program, eased social restrictions and promoted dialogue with the West, giving reformers hope that he (Khatami) would try to lead Iran out of international isolation and religious reaction; Ayatollah Khamenei the return of a cleric to the presidency emphasizes the legitimacy to the theocratic state and the calm and orderly elections provided a safety valve for a public distressed by years of economic malaise and isolation.
For the US and its allies, including Israel, the question at hand is clear: Will Rohani’s election lead to substantive change in the conflict with Iran over its nuclear program. Nobody knows the answer yet but, unfortunately, the facts are stacked against a positive outcome.
First, Ayatollah Khamenei still holds ultimate power over the nation’s civil and religious affairs, including over the disputed nuclear program. But President -Elect Hassan Rowhani was also Iran’s top nuclear negotiator from 6 October 2003 to 15 August 2005 and has a keen understanding of the issues involved.
He also understands that the ongoing confrontation with the Western nations will further harm Iran’s economy and the financial health and welfare of Iran’s middle class and contribute to growing unemployment for Iran’s younger generation under 35, which now represents two thirds of the 70 million population.
Second, President-Elect Rowhani is fully supporting Iran’s nuclear program. In a 2004 speech, not made public until years later, he boasted that even when Iran had suspended uranium enrichment, it was able to make its greatest nuclear advances because the pressure was off.
“While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the facility in Isfahan,” he said. “In fact, by creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work in Isfahan,” a crucial Iranian nuclear facility.
In the next few weeks Iran political leadership will chart a new course to stabilize Iran’s economy and to meet the demands of Rohawi’s middle-class electorate who desperately seeking more financial and social stability.
The US and its European allies should employ a carrot and stick diplomacy: on the one hand offering the gradual lifting of sanction, if Iran is meeting the demands of the P5+1 coalition in regard to it nuclear program. If Iran chooses to negotiate for the sake of negotiations and to gain more time to develop its nuclear weapons program, then President-Elect Rowhani has to accept bitter economic and, maybe, even military consequences.
Now is the time to offer Iran’s new president the choice to lead. He has the majority of Iranians behind him and even the Ayatollah’s cannot ignore this fact.
In this crucial time period Western nations and Israel should hold any premature criticism in regards to Iran’s presidential election and carefully monitor the unfolding political process.