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Iran's June surprise: the moderate candidate wins

Iran election blog
Caption: Hassan Rohani's supporters celebrate his victory in Iran's presidential election in Tehran Saturday, scoring a surprising landslide victory without a second round run-off. Reuters/Fars News/Sina Shiri 

In an unexpected first round win, cleric Hassan Rouhani is set to become Iran’s next president, a national nose-thumbing at hardliners and inflammatory departing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

A stocky 65-year-old, Rouhani had a slow start among eight officially-approved runners  but moved up quickly as the reformist favourite when the likely reform candidate bowed out and two moderate former presidents gave him a public boost.

So what’s the outlook for Iran and the new president elect?

Q: How moderate is Rouhani?
A: He’s a late bloomer. He started political life as an anti-shah revolutionary, went into exile in Scotland and returned when the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenini took power.

After hard time as a top commander during the Iran-Iraq war, he moved to the centre as an ally of presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami. As a nuclear negotiator he forged a deal to freeze Iran’s uranium enrichment program. In the recent campaign he took a big public step away from Ahmadinejad’s confrontational policies, blamed him for sanctions and economic ruin and promised hope and change.

Q:  Did his victory put the boots to the conservatives?
A: The results say so. But it's also a win-win-win.
Although Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his conservative clique favored some losing hardliners, he also backed off in the face of major public opposition.

The reformers get a surprise goal without a perilous protest. The conservatives get a pragmatic cleric with a good track record and no real power to make radical changes.  Khamenei is counting on renewed legitimacy from a bloodless election that gives him democratic points for restraint in a skewed system he largely controls.

Q: So the reformers are happy?
A: The celebrations are on -- for now. But few trust the current politicians and many want the kind of root-and-branch reform that won’t happen without a re-set of the system – with a new constitution that upholds democracy and human rights.

Q: So nothing much will change in Iran?
A: Remains to be seen. Iran’s political landscape was fractured under Ahmadinejad, who had a notorious split with Khamenei. If Rouhani can get the establishment behind economic and social reforms beleaguered Iranians could breathe easier -- as long as Khamenei takes the disenchanted mood of the public seriously. But it also depends on lifting of the crushing international sanctions, which have flattened the once-thriving oil economy and the futures of Iranians.

Q: And the prospects for a new nuclear deal?
A: Better than zero – the outlook under Ahmedinejad. Rouhani was the West’s most liked Iranian nuclear negotiator, and he understands how to deal. But since then the Supreme Leader’s line has hardened, and he still has the final say. The election is a signal to the West that a deal could be done. Or that a smilier public face will be at the table for the next nuclear talks.

Olivia Ward has covered conflicts, politics and human rights in the former Sovier Union, Europe, South Asia and the Middle East.  Most recently she wrote a guide to Iran's election.



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