Iran election's surprise winner

The unexpected victory of Hassan Rohani In Iran's presidential election confirms his hint that legitimacy lies with the people, not the turbaned cleric elite.

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (left), met with President-elect Hassan Rohani in Tehran June 16.

Voters in Iran were not allowed a wide range of candidates in Friday’s election for a new president. But they certainly made the most of it. They decisively chose Hassan Rohani in a huge turnout, exploiting what little liberty they have to signal a need for change.

As a Muslim cleric whose PhD thesis from a Scottish university was on the flexibility of sharia law, Mr. Rohani seems to know that Iran’s 34-year-old Islamic revolution has failed to define the source of authority for the country’s rulers. His presidential decisions will surely be subject to the whims of the unelected supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But Rohani hints that it is the people and their own religiosity that matters most. 

“You demonstrated that God will not materialize change in any country, unless the nation truly wants it,” he said after his victory.

That a democracy must rest on the sovereignty and conscience of its people is a concept currently roiling the Middle East from Egypt to Turkey to Syria. Iran’s 2009 upheaval after a rigged election was a model for the Arab Spring but also weakened the shaky notion of imposing Islam through the power of the state. Mr. Khamenei, in fact, has lately had to appeal to Iranian nationalism and less to Shiite theology (and his own dictatorial authority).

Rohani’s win came in part because of a promise to ease restrictions on women, allow Internet freedom, and release hundreds of political prisoners who are in jail “just for their ideas,” as he put it. Even if he is sincere, he will be put to the test, however, if he moves to end the house arrests of Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi, leaders of the 2009 protests.

He will also be tested by hard-line conservative clerics and the Revolutionary Guard if he tries to fulfill a promise to “engage” the West seriously on the nuclear issue and to “heal” the “old wounds” between Iran and the United States.

In his campaign, he made clear that Iran’s economic woes are caused by its international isolation, which hints at the need to shed more light on the country’s nuclear ambitions. “Certain people in this country are proud of themselves for bringing [United Nations] sanctions on us and are proud of themselves for bringing poverty,” he said at one rally.

He also said Iran must be “more transparent to show that its activities fall within the framework of international rules.” His main opponents in the presidential race took the opposite approach.

Within Iran’s often-ruthless leadership, Rohani is a moderate, and one who will now have limited powers. He has long had the ear of the supreme leader, but now he has legitimacy from the people. Unlike his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he likely won’t be bellicose toward Israel. As a former negotiator in nuclear talks with the West, he displayed a talent for finding common interests with other nations.

President Obama and other Western leaders will need to act cautiously in dealing with Rohani. He’s not his own man, at least not yet. And he has sided with Iran’s security crackdowns in the past. Yet he represents, to a big degree, a majority of Iranians who are tired of being punished for their leaders’ actions.

With one foot in Shiite authoritarianism and another in a popular desire for democracy, he needs help in making a clear choice.

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