19
Jun

By Hooman Majd

19iht-edmadj19-articleLarge

Iranians went to the polls on Friday in what turned out to be — against all expectations — a peaceful, if not entirely fair, presidential election.

The international media, analysts and even Western government officials had dismissed the election in advance as a farce, with the outcome to be determined by only one man — Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — or saw it as a tightly controlled contest among a half-dozen handpicked, indistinguishable candidates servile to the supreme leader’s wishes.

Many Iranians, too, initially saw their elections in much the same way.

But people have a funny way of defying expectations, sometimes even their own. The contest was not without meaning for a population suffering from runaway inflation, double-digit unemployment and a stifling political and social atmosphere, to say nothing of international isolation and the burdensome economic sanctions that have been imposed on them.

Despite the narrow field of candidates, voters ultimately knew that they did have a choice between the status quo and change, however modest that change might appear to foreign observers. In unexpectedly huge numbers, voters from across the social spectrum chose change in the person of Hassan Rowhani, a mild-mannered cleric and former chief negotiator for Iran’s nuclear program under the reformist president Mohammad Khatami.

Although Ayatollah Khamenei has final say on the issues that most concern the West, Rowhani’s victory is cause for optimism among Iranians, and should be seen as a source of hope for the world at large, as the Obama administration rightly, albeit mutedly, has noted. The White House chief of staff, Denis McDonough, hinted at this on Sunday, saying that if Rowhani is interested in “mending relations with the rest of the world, as he has said in his campaign events, there is an opportunity to do that.” But he added that this would require Iran “to come clean on this illicit nuclear program.”

Rowhani’s triumph — he received more votes than all five rivals combined — inspired celebrations on the streets of Tehran of a kind not seen since 2009, before the Green Movement was crushed in the uprising that followed the disputed election. Moreover, the ready acceptance of the latest election results by the supreme leader himself is indication of potential flexibility in a hard-line regime. Read more…

As published in www.nytimes.com on June 18, 2013 (a version of this op-ed appeared in print on June 19, 2013, in The International Herald Tribune).

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