Joyous crowds gathered after the results were announced Saturday in Tehran, Iran.

Vahid Salemi • Associated Press,

In shift, Iranians elect moderate

  • Article by: THOMAS ERDBRINK
  • New York Times
  • June 15, 2013 - 11:37 PM


– In a striking repudiation of the ultraconservatives who wield power in Iran, voters here overwhelmingly elected a mild-mannered cleric who advocates greater personal freedoms and a more conciliatory approach to the world.

The cleric, Hassan Rowhani, 64, won a commanding 50.7 percent of the vote in the six-way race, according to final results released Saturday, avoiding a runoff to replace the departing president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose tenure was defined largely by confrontation with the West and a seriously hobbled economy at home.

Thousands of jubilant supporters poured into the streets of Tehran, dancing, blowing car horns and waving placards and ribbons of purple, Rowhani’s campaign color. After the previous election in 2009, widely seen as rigged, many Iranians were shaking their heads that their votes were counted this time.

In the women’s compartment of a subway, riders were astonished. “They were all shocked, like me,” said Fatemah, 58. “It is unbelievable, have the people really won?”

The mayor of Tehran, seen as a pragmatist, came in second with 18 percent of the vote, but the four hard-line conservatives aligned with the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, finished at the back of the pack, indicating that Iranians were looking to their next president to change the tone if not the direction of the nation by choosing a cleric who served as the lead nuclear negotiator under an earlier reformist president, Mohammad Khatami.

Though Rowhani’s election was not expected to represent a break with Iran’s nuclear policies, voters linked him with the Khatami era, when Iran froze its nuclear program, eased social restrictions and promoted dialogue with the West, giving them hope that he would try to lead Iran out of international isolation.

‘There will be moderation’

But if the election was a victory for reformers and the middle class, it also served the conservative goals of the supreme leader — restoring at least a patina of legitimacy to the theocratic state, providing a safety valve for a public distressed by years of economic malaise and isolation, and returning a cleric to the presidency. Ahmadinejad was the first noncleric to hold the presidency, and often clashed with the religious order and its traditionalist allies.

The question for Western capitals is whether a more conciliatory approach can lead to substantive change in the conflict with Iran over its nuclear program. A willingness to talk does not mean a willingness to concede.

Khamenei still holds ultimate power over the nation’s civil and religious affairs, including over the disputed nuclear program. Sharif Husseini, a member of Parliament, warned Saturday that “nothing would change” in Iran’s nuclear policies.

For all his reformist credentials, Rowhani backs the nuclear program, which Iran contends is for peaceful uses but which the West believes is aimed at producing atomic weapons. In a 2004 speech, which was not made public until years later, he noted that even when Iran had suspended uranium enrichment, it was able to make its greatest nuclear advances because the pressure was off.

Analysts are predicting at least some change. The president does have some control over the economy — the public’s primary concern recently — and through the bully pulpit of the office he can set the tone of public debate on a wide variety of issues, from placing restrictions on young people’s socializing to the nuclear program.

“There will be moderation in domestic and foreign policy under Mr. Rowhani,” said Saeed Laylaz, an economist and columnist close to the reformist current of thinking. “First we need to form a centrist and moderate government, reconcile domestic disputes, then he can make changes in our foreign policy.”

A White House statement Saturday congratulated Iranians on “their courage in making their voices heard.” The United States, it added, “remains ready to engage the Iranian government directly in order to reach a diplomatic solution that will fully address the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.”

As the race began, conservatives and hard-liners had first seemed to close ranks around Saeed Jalili, the nation’s hard-line nuclear negotiator and a close ally of the supreme leader. Jalili campaigned on the idea of no compromise, explicitly referring to negotiations with the West over Iran’s nuclear program, but which may also have been seen by the weary electorate in Iran as a cornerstone of his domestic intentions. He won just over 11 percent of the vote.

Rowhani, by comparison, used a key as his campaign symbol, focusing on issues important to the young, including unemployment. His message was one of outreach, responsiveness and inclusion.

“Let’s end extremism,” Rowhani said during a campaign speech. “We have no other option than moderation.”

He criticized the much-hated morality police who arrest women for not having proper headscarves and coats. He called for the lifting of restrictions on the Internet. He said that “in consensus with higher officials” political prisoners would be freed.

Appeal to younger voters

At the time his campaign words sounded like empty promises to many potential voters, who pointed out that Rowhani did not enjoy the support of those in power. But support from two former presidents, Khatami and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was disqualified from the election, lifted Rowhani’s status, helping him tap into the votes of millions of dissatisfied Iranians.

His appeal to the younger generation was crucial in a nation where there is an increasing divide between the millions of youths — two-thirds of the 70 million population are younger than 35 — and the ruling hard-liners who use morality police, Internet blocking and other harsh measures to try to mold those born after the revolution.

Many Iranians were disillusioned after the 2009 election, when millions took to the streets after a vote widely seen as rigged returned Ahmadinejad to office. The government deployed security forces to silence the opposition and placed its leaders under house arrest for years. “We need to end these eight years of horror,” said Mehdi, 29. “I thought of not voting, but we cannot stand aside.”


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