What's next in Iran?

The newly elected president has room to push for reforms

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You certainly can't say that Iranian elections are boring. In 2005, Iranians surprised everybody by electing the darkest of dark horses, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to the presidency. They didn't know much about him, but at least he seemed different from all the establishment candidates.

Well, he was different, but not in a good way. By the 2009 election Mr. Ahmadinejad's erratic and confrontational style had turned people off, and he should have lost -- but he rigged the vote and triggered mass protests that badly frightened the regime before they were crushed.

Term limits prevented Mr. Ahmadinejad from running again this year, which meant that last Friday's election was clean. So the Iranians pulled off another surprise, electing Hassan Rowhani, the only moderate candidate among the six contenders, to the presidency in the first round. Mr. Rowhani got 50 percent of the votes; his closest rival got only 16 percent.

The foreign reaction to Mr. Rowhani's victory was instantaneous. The United States offered to open direct talks with Tehran on Iran's nuclear program as well as on bilateral relations. Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, by contrast, predictably warned that there should be no "wishful thinking" about Mr. Rowhani's victory. So what is he: a new broom or another disappointment in the making?

Especially in the past week, after the "reformist" leadership decided he was the least bad alternative and threw its weight behind him, Mr. Rowhani has been saying some interesting things. "What I truly wish is for moderation to return to the country," he told the reformist daily Sharq last Wednesday. "We have suffered many blows as a result of extremism."

"It seems that extremists on both sides are determined to maintain the state of hostility and hatred between (the United States and Iran)," he told another newspaper on Thursday, "but logic says that there should be a change of direction." And he repeatedly promised that both the nuclear issue and the resulting economic sanctions against Iran would be solved if he became president.

Fine words, but he is still really an insider, a man whose whole life has been dedicated to preserving the present political order in Iran. On the other hand, so are Mohammad Khatemi and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, two moderate ex-presidents who gave him their backing. They are now seen as reformers because circumstances change, and so do people's views.

All these men are still determined to preserve Iran's unique combination of theocracy and democracy, but they understand the need to shift the balance towards democracy, and also to deliver a reasonable level of prosperity to the voters.

You might think that Mr. Rowhani's highest priority, therefore, must be to end the sanctions that are crippling Iran's economy and impoverishing ordinary voters. Not so: Trust comes first. In order to retain credibility with the people who voted for him, he must first release Iran's political prisoners.

There are at least 800 political prisoners in Iran. Most are people who participated in the "green" protests against the rigged election of 2009, but journalists, human rights activists, feminists and leaders of all the minority religions in Iran (Christians, Sunni Muslims and Bahai) are also in jail. Even amid great economic hardship, that is what the crowds in the streets celebrating Mr. Rowhani's victory were demanding most urgently.

After that, of course, he must make a deal with the Western countries that have waged a long campaign on Israel's behalf against Iran's alleged intention to build nuclear weapons. That is not an impossible task, for Iran is not working on nuclear weapons at the moment: the U.S. National Intelligence Estimates of 2007 and 2011 both say so, and even the Israeli intelligence chiefs agree.

The whole campaign against Iran is based not on evidence but on mistrust: the conviction in some Western quarters (and most Israeli ones) that if Iran can enrich uranium, the "mad mullahs" are bound to build and use nuclear weapons in the end. But it is Iran's right to build nuclear reactors and enrich fuel for them under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which it has signed and still observes.

Many in the West are privately uneasy about waging a campaign against Iran's quite legal nuclear power program when their own ally, Israel, has not signed the nonproliferation treaty and secretly possesses hundreds of nuclear weapons. Now that motor-mouth Ahmedinejad is gone and a saner leader is about to take the reins in Tehran, there could be a deal on the nuclear issue.

It would be a deal that preserves the country's right to enrich uranium, but strengthens the controls against enrichment to weapons grade (90 percent). As with the question of releasing political prisoners, however, Mr. Rowhani must first get the assent of the supreme leaders, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Ayatollah Khamenei, as the head of the theocratic side of the government, has the power to veto everything. On the other hand, he also wants to preserve this strange two-headed beast called the Iranian revolution, and he knows that if it does not retain popular consent it will eventually die. Western sanctions are bringing the Iranian economy to its knees, and people are really hurting. So maybe Ayatollah Khamenei will let Mr. Rowhani and his backers save him.

opinion_commentary

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist and military analyst based in London.


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