The result wasn't just a surprise. It was also a message to the Iranian leadership, to the world and especially to the US: We Iranians want reforms. We are sick of isolation. And we have elected a man who is capable of standing his ground in the power network of the Islamic republic, who can seek compromise rather than confrontation and who can cautiously reach out to the US.
The unity with which the reformers flocked to the moderate cleric Rohani and the divisions among the hardliners whose voters were divided among several candidates show that Iran has reached a crossroads: The hardliners are ideologically spent. They don't offer the Iranians the prospect of a better future. The reformers have been lucky with Rohani, who was initially underestimated. The skilful mediator doesn't pose as blatant a challenge to the Iranian establishment, which continues to hold the reins of power, as the brawny Rafsanjani did. But he's more assertive than Ahmadinejad's predecessor, the reformer Mohammad Khatami whose reform plans foundered against the hardliners' brick wall.
Rohani is an insider, having held top posts in the Iranian regime since the 1979 Islamic revolution, but the reform movement, violently suppressed after protests in 2009 against alleged electoral fraud in Ahmadinejad's re-election that year, has embraced him. That's because Rohani has called for an end to the "era of extremism" and pledged to introduce a charta of citizens' rights, improve the position of women in Iranian society, boost media rights and scale back the power of the secret services.
Rohani owes his victory to frustration with the economic impact of Western/US sanctions imposed in the course of the nuclear dispute. The West and the US suspect Iran is developing atomic weapons. Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. The West and US should seize this chance for a relaunch of relations with Iran. But some observers caution that the strings of power in Iran are still ultimately held by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, with whom Rohani, a man of the system, has a good rapport.
Rohani will only be able to stand his ground against the bastions of the republic such as the Republican Guard and the clerical institutions if people see that his policies are improving their standard of living, which would require a relaxation of the sanctions. For that to happen Rohani will quickly have to explain what concessions he is prepared to make on uranium enrichment. Even if Khamenei were to resist such moves, Rohani could -- if the West and the US played along -- ride the momentum of his surprise victory to get his way. Constructive negotiations with Iran were never more promising than they are now.
He says he will improve relations with the West and the US and boost civil and human rights. And maybe the tone of the Iranian government will really get a little softer. But even though the former chief negotiator is well versed in Iran's nuclear policy -- supreme religious leader Khamenei will have the last word here as in foreign and security policy.
Two basic tensions underpin almost all the foreign policy perspectives in Iran. The first tension is between Iran’s outright rejection of the current international order and its desire to improve its own position within that order. The second tension is between the country’s sense of importance as a regional and global player and its impulse to emphasize Iran’s insecurities and strategic loneliness. The one guiding principle of Iranian foreign policy that is in no way up for debate is nationalism, specifically an emphasis on national sovereignty in the face of global arrogance.
These three broad forces shape the boundaries beyond which Rohani cannot step if he wishes to remain relevant. As he hopes to seek improved relations or accommodation with the global order, he must walk a fine line between being seen as promoting the national interest and falling prey to sazesh (collusion).
Maybe the Ayatollah has realized that rallying calls to the population won't preserve the country from economic ruin and that he needs a moderate reformer to save the system and his own position. Rohani has the makings of a strong president. But the new man isn't an opponent of the system. He's a man of the system who has served in very high offices, including as Khamenei's representative in the National Security Council for a long time.
Looking at the situation in the Middle East, the timing isn't exactly favorable for reforms. The internationalization of the Syrian civil war, in which Tehran is steadfastly supporting President Bashar Assad, doesn't point to Iran giving up important positions. The same applies to the nuclear talks. Rohani too insists that his country has a contractual right to enriching uranium to 20 percent. It will be easier to discuss terms with him, but the West and the US mustn't miss this chance for a new beginning. It would be an irreparable mistake to keep Rohani dangling on his outstretched arm, as the West did with Khatami.
On the other side the West -- and especially the US -- will have to give a sign that it is ready to find a way out of the political stalemate. But even US President Barack Obama can't take decisions alone. He has to take account of Congress and of US partner Israel. So it's by no means certain that the message of the Iranians will really be heard in Washington.
By Guylain Gustave Moke
World Affairs Analyst