It is tempting to enthusiastically applaud Iran’s surprise election of a genuine moderate, Hassan Rouhani, as its next president. To westerners, weary of Iran’s confrontational political style (as personified most vividly by the outgoing president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad), Rouhani was by far the most appealing of all the candidates on Friday’s ballot.
That Iran’s all-powerful religious establishment even permitted Rouhani, who made his moderate positions clear throughout the election campaign, to be on the ballot was something of a surprise in itself and now, having won a surprisingly overwhelming victory, Rouhani has vowed to ease tensions with Iran’s many critics.
But can that be done? The problems facing Iran — its economy is in tatters, for one thing — do not lend themselves to easy solutions. For the damaging economic sanctions to be lifted, Tehran would have to execute an extremely sharp change in direction, and it’s hard to imagine the country’s supreme leader, the ultra-conservative Ayatollah ali Khamenei, allowing that to happen.
And yet so pleasing was Rouhani’s victory (and the fact it clearly represented a sharp rebuke to Khamenei by a majority of the Iranian people) that the White House immediately demanded that the ayatollah and his associates “heed the will of the Iranian people.”
And the very fact that Washington had to say that is a reminder that what Iran calls a democracy is in fact a sham, an exercise in deception, because it is totally within Khamenei’s power to scuttle any liberalization steps the newly elected president might wish to take.
However, perhaps it should be seen as a good sign that the government did not hesitate to publicly affirm Rouhani’s victory, suggesting that he may be given a fair chance to actually carry out his political agenda. But whatever he does, or tries to do in terms of reform, there will always be the shadow of Khamenei and his military supporters hanging over his presidency.
The Obama administration applauded Iran’s voters for having “the courage in making their voices heard” despite censorship and intimidation and then added that Washington is open to engaging the new leadership in yet another bid to find a diplomatic solution to western worries about Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
The bottom line is this: The United States and its allies absolutely will not permit Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. And keep in mind that one of Rouhani’s previous assignments was to represent Iran’s side in earlier nuclear negotiations.
But perhaps a more pressing issue at the moment is Iran’s role in the seemingly out-of-control Syrian civil war. Iran supports the brutal Assad dictatorship in Damascus, both directly and indirectly (through Hezbollah, the anti-Israel, anti-American rebel army based in Lebanon). The Obama administration is understandably reluctant to intervene directly on behalf of the anti-Assad fighters and has rejected the notion of a no-fly zone to aid the rebels.
However, on Saturday, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi not only said he had cut all of Egypt’s diplomatic ties with Damascus, but he even called for a no-fly zone over Syria and demanded that Hezbollah withdraw from fighting. “We stand against Hezbollah in its aggression against the Syrian people,” Morsi said. “Hezbollah must leave Syria — these are serious words. There is no space or place for Hezbollah in Syria.”
Morsi said he was organizing an urgent summit of Arab and other Islamic states to discuss the situation in Syria. And there’s no way you can discuss the situation in Syria without also discussing Iran’s election results. And that makes these results all the more intriguing.
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