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Rohani's Victory Signals Desire For Change


Hassan Rohani flashes a victory sign as he leaves a polling station after voting in Tehran on June 14.
The victory of cleric Hassan Rohani, the sole moderate in Iran's presidential vote, signals a strong desire for change among Iranians, who are facing soaring prices, unemployment, and increased social and political restrictions.

Rohani, a former top nuclear negotiator and member of the Assembly of Experts, was the only candidate in the final field of six to call for moderation.

He criticized censorship and state interference in people's private lives while promising to end radical policies and ease tensions with the international community.

Nearly 51 percent of Iran's eligible voters cast their ballots for the 64-year-old Rohani, making him the outright winner of the vote.

His election was generally welcomed abroad.

Rohani has a difficult task ahead. Iran has in the past years become more repressive, its economy is in shambles as a result of mismanagement and crippling U.S.-led sanctions, and the country faces international isolation.

READ MORE: Candidates Long On Rhetoric, Short Of Answers For Economy

Real power in the Islamic republic lies with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his hard-line allies -- including the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) -- who have actively suppressed those fighting for change and reforms.

Hopes For Reform

Nevertheless, some Iran observers, including Karim Sadjadpour, a senior analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, say Rohani could bring some limited change.

"After eight years of darkness, the clouds of extremism could soon begin to part, however slightly," Sadjadpour says, and refers to Rohani as the "default candidate" for Iranians seeking change.

Alireza Nader, a senior policy analyst with the Rand Corporation, describes the June 14 vote as an attempt by former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and moderate conservatives to assert their power. Some moderate conservatives have come under pressure by Khamenei and the hard-line IRGC, and Rohani is close to Rafsanjani, whose bid to enter the election race was thwarted by the Guardians Council.

"Iranians voted for the least dogmatic candidate," Nader says. "Will Rohani be able to undertake major reforms and defuse tension over the nuclear program? We'll have to see how Iran's deep state -- Khamenei, the Guards, and Basij -- react to the election."

Taking On Khamenei

Iranian journalist Akbar Ganji told RFE/RL's Radio Farda that the fulfillment of Rohani's campaign promises will, to a great extent, depend on his working relationship with Khamenei.

"We shouldn't have very high expectations. Under the current structure, he should try to manage to create some coordination with Khamenei, and also with the parliament to improve the economy," Ganji said.

"And most importantly, to open a way for talks with Western governments, particularly direct talks with the U.S., to reach a deal on the nuclear issue and removal of the sanctions because the sanctions can destroy our society."

A woman in the Iranian capital who voted for Rohani told RFE/RL the vote was a "no to extremism." She expressed hope that Rohani's presidency will improve people's lives, reduce tensions with the West, and give Iranians "breathing space."

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Another voter described the election result as a defeat for Ayatollah Khamenei, who sided with the hard-line camp. "We created a political epic but not the kind [Khamenei] asked for," the businessman, who did not want to be named, told RFE/RL. "We won, he lost," he added.

...Or Khamenei Victorious?

In Washington, Sadjadpour has a different view. "I am not so sure that Khamenei is the loser here," he says. "Voters repudiated his policies but by allowing them to do so he has helped rehabilitate his tattered reputation."

Indeed, Khamenei and other officials praised the vote and the reported turnout of more than 70 percent, describing it as a "political epic."

In a statement issued by his office, Khamenei described the vote as a "stunning test" that opened Iran's "determined and hopeful" face to the eyes of the country's enemies. He said that the vote demonstrated the "strong" ties of Iranians to the establishment.

The June 14 presidential election was the first since the disputed reelection of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad that led to massive street protests and unprecedented protest chants against Khamenei.

Some voters said that they voted for Rohani to prevent ultra-hard-line nuclear negotiator Said Jalili, thought to be Khamenei's preferred choice, from becoming president.

"In most countries people vote to bring a candidate to power. In Iran we voted to prevent a candidate from coming to power," wrote one man on social media.

Ahead of the vote, Khamenei had said that each cast ballot was a vote for the clerical establishment.

International Welcome

International responses to news of Rohani's election were cautiously encouraging.

The United States, which has had hostile relations with Iran for decades, said it "respected" the outcome and was ready for "direct" engagement to resolve allegations that Iran is trying to build a nuclear weapon.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said she was "fully committed" to working with Rohani’s government to resolve the nuclear dispute.

And United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed hope for Iran to play a "constructive role" in regional and international affairs.

Iranian rival Israel noted that Iran’s supreme leader, not the president, decides nuclear policy and called on Iran to stop its nuclear program and cease spreading terrorism.

Russian President Vladimir Putin urged Rohani to further strengthen ties with Moscow.

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.