16 June 2013
To the casual observer, pictures of ordinary Iranians celebrating the election of Hassan Rouhani as president must have been a strange one. After all, only four years ago, the allegations of fraud in the reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had caused massive protests in Iran.
Of course, prior to the election, many in the West had portrayed the Iranians elections as a rerun of the 2009 charade. Some still do.
Yet Iran’s impressive voter turnout (estimated at 75 percent, which is fifteen points higher than the turnout in the U.S. presidential election last year), gave the lie to much of the criticism. The celebrations further refuted the critics.
But why are Iranians so excited about Hassan Rouhani?
The answer partly lies in Rouhani’s background. The jurist-turned-foreign policy expert has the right credentials to serve Iran as president for the next four years. Before his election, Rouhani was Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei’s representative in the Supreme National Security Council, Iran’s most important policy-making body on matters of national defense and foreign affairs. Rouhani also led the team that negotiated Iran’s nuclear program with Britain, France, and Germany in 2003-5. He completed a doctorate in law at Glasgow Caledonian University and speaks several foreign languages. In short, Rouhani has the experience and skills to improve Iran’s international standing.
This background probably helped him with his election. As other experts have pointed out, Rouhani’s victory is a signal that the people of Iran want the standoff with the outside world over their country’s nuclear program to be resolved peacefully. Even though the supreme leader has ultimate say in Iran’s national security affairs, it is the president who serves as the country’s main broker with the outside world. Among all candidates on the ballot, Rouhani was the best man to improve his nation’s international standing.
Also important was how Rouhani addressed issues most crucial for ordinary Iranians: the economy and social rights. As Hooman Majd, one of the most original and fun-to-read observers of the Iranian scene, points out, “it’s the economy, stupid” also resonates in the Iranian context. Rouhani demonstrates that he understands Iran’s economic problems and knows how to fix them. (Of course, much of the fixing will hinge on whether or not he gets some of the U.S. and EU-backed sanctions lifted.) Add to that Rouhani’s promises for a free press and nod to civil rights during his campaign, it’s easy to see why he inspires hope among his fellow Iranians.
These are some of the obvious reasons why Hassan Rouhani’s victory is good news. But there are also intangible (yet critically important) factors that make this election bode well for Iran and the world. Rouhani is not a radical reformer but he is not a hardliner or a puppet of Khamanei either. Despite his status as an “inside man” within the Islamic Republic, the new president received substantial support from moderates and reformists during his campaign. For the next four years, Rouhani will be able to talk to both the establishment and the reformists with ease.
On a similar note, the new president’s frankness is also what Iran needs, especially in a culture that values indirect politeness over straight-talk. Last month on state television, Rouhani had no problem tearing apart the talk show host who tried to question his success as nuclear negotiator in 2003-5. Of course, as it’s wont of Iranians, Rouhani did so very politely and with a smile on his face.
That frankness will come in very handy. Iran may not be a Western-style democracy but it is no North Korea either. The Iranian media frequently complains about the country’s problems and expresses popular frustrations. But many of those grievances probably don’t reach the supreme leader (a frequent problem in authoritarian systems). At the moment, Iran actually needs a president who could level with the supreme leader as well as ordinary Iranians. Rouhani strikes me as somebody who could fulfill that role.
Iran faces some very tough choices in the days ahead. When Hassan Rouhani takes charge in August, he will have some hard decisions to make. The good news is that he seems capable of making them. Right now, Iranians have reason to celebrate.
Barın Kayaoğlu is finishing his Ph.D. in history at the University of Virginia and is a Smith Richardson Foundation fellow in International Security Studies at Yale University. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.