Iran Moderate Wins Presidency by a Large Margin
By Thomas Erdbrink, NY Times, June 15, 2013
TEHRAN—In a striking repudiation of the ultraconservatives who wield power in Iran, voters here overwhelmingly elected a mild-mannered cleric who advocates greater personal freedoms and a more conciliatory approach to the world.
The cleric, Hassan Rowhani, 64, won a commanding 50.7 percent of the vote in the six-way race, according to final results released Saturday, avoiding a runoff in the race to replace the departing president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose tenure was defined largely by confrontation with the West and a seriously hobbled economy at home.
Thousands of jubilant supporters poured into the streets of Tehran, dancing, blowing car horns and waving placards and ribbons of purple, Mr. Rowhani’s campaign color. After the previous election in 2009, widely seen as rigged, many Iranians were shaking their heads that their votes were counted this time.
"They were all shocked, like me," said Fatemah, 58, speaking of fellow riders in the women’s compartment of a Tehran subway. "It is unbelievable, have the people really won?"
The mayor of Tehran, seen as a pragmatist, came in second with 18 percent of the vote, but the four hard-line conservatives aligned with the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, finished at the back of the pack. That punishing at the polls indicated that Iranians were looking to their next president to change the tone, if not the direction, of the nation by choosing a cleric who served as the lead nuclear negotiator under an earlier reformist president, Mohammad Khatami.
Though Mr. Rowhani’s election was not expected to represent a break with Iran’s nuclear policies, voters linked him with the Khatami era, when Iran froze its nuclear program, eased social restrictions and promoted dialogue with the West, giving reformers hope that he would try to lead Iran out of international isolation and religious reaction.
But if the election was a victory for reform and middle class voters, it also served the conservative goals of the supreme leader, restoring at least a patina of legitimacy to the theocratic state, providing a safety valve for a public distressed by years of economic malaise and isolation, and returning a cleric to the presidency. Mr. Ahmadinejad was the first noncleric to hold the presidency, and often clashed with the religious order and its traditionalist allies.
The question for Western capitals is whether a more conciliatory approach can lead to substantive change in the conflict with Iran over its nuclear program.
Ayatollah Khamenei still holds ultimate power over the nation’s civil and religious affairs, including over the disputed nuclear program. Sharif Husseini, a member of Parliament, warned Saturday that “nothing would change” in Iran’s nuclear policies. “All these policies have been decided by the supreme leader,” he was quoted as saying by the Iranian Student News Agency.
Still, the election results put Ayatollah Khamenei under pressure to allow some changes, and could allow him to make changes that might be opposed by hard-liners if they controlled all the levers of power.
Analysts predict at least some change. The president can set the tone of debate on issues from socializing rules for young people to the need for the nuclear program. He will also have some control over the economy—the public’s primary concern lately.
A White House statement on Saturday congratulated Iranians on “their courage in making their voices heard” and urged the new government to “heed the will of the Iranian people and make responsible choices that create a better future for all Iranians.” The United States, it added, “remains ready to engage the Iranian government directly” to find a diplomatic solution to concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.
Many Iranians who voted on Friday suggested they had mixed feelings about casting a ballot for any of the candidates carefully vetted by the ruling clerics. But they said that at least Mr. Rowhani represented a distinct change from the combative style of Mr. Ahmadinejad, who presided over a painful economic decline and international isolation.
"We need to end these eight years of horror," said Mehdi, 29, while leaving a polling station in Narmak, the neighborhood where Mr. Ahmadinejad had lived before he was elected in 2005. "I thought of not voting, but we cannot stand aside."
"Either Rowhani wins, or we leave the country," he said as his wife nodded.