What Does a 'Moderate' Iranian President Look Like?

Reading reports about the election in Iran, one would think that the Islamic version of John McCain or Mitt Romney was about to win the presidential election.

Not hardly.


The “moderate” or “reformist” candidate, Hassan Rohani, appears to be an outright winner in the presidential election and judging by the comments made by foreign policy experts, a new day is dawning between Iran and the West.


Though an establishment figure, Rohani is a former chief nuclear negotiator known for his conciliatory approach. He has pledged to promote a foreign policy of “constructive interaction with the world” and to enact a “civil rights charter” at home.

Rohani’s wide early margin revealed a broad reservoir of pro-reform sentiment with many voters, undaunted by restrictions on candidate choice and campaign rallies, seizing the chance to repudiate the dominant hardline elite over Iran’s economic woes, international isolation and crackdowns on social freedoms.


With some 27 million votes counted from the 50-million-strong electorate, Rohani had tallied 50.81 percent of all ballots cast, Iran’s interior minister said. That would be enough to avoid a second-round run-off on June 21.

Rohani’s nearest rival was conservative Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, a long way behind with less than 16 percent. Other hardline candidates close to Khamenei, including current nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, scored even lower.

British former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who dealt with Rohani during nuclear negotiations between 2003 and 2005, called him a “very experienced diplomat and politician”.

“This is a remarkable and welcome result so far and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that there will be no jiggery-pokery with the final result,” Straw told Reuters, alluding to accusations of widespread rigging in the 2009 election.

“What this huge vote of confidence in Doctor Rohani appears to show is a hunger by the Iranian people to break away from the arid and self-defeating approach of the past and for more constructive relations with the West,” he said.

“On a personal level I found him warm and engaging. He is a strong Iranian patriot and he was tough, but fair to deal with and always on top of his brief.”

Suzanne Maloney, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said Iran “appears to be on the verge of shocking the world”.

“With Rohani leading the vote, the regime’s calculation now is whether a run-off campaign … is worth the risk. A second round would entail an additional week of the kind of exhilarated campaigning, replete with young Iranians dancing in the streets and an amplified chorus of demands for social and political reforms, and ultimately pose a greater risk to the system.”

Small groups gathering outside Rohani’s campaign headquarters in Tehran were politely asked to disperse by police, witnesses said, indicating authorities’ desire to see no repeat of the crowds that gathered after the 2009 vote, but also more restraint on the part of security forces. The pro-Rohani groups moved on quietly, according to the witnesses.


Isn’t that nice? Police “politely”asked people to disperse. I suppose that’s an improvement from hitting them over the head with a truncheon.

At least Maloney has the wit to wonder if Khamenei is going to risk a run-off campaign, implying vote rigging. In this case, Rohani appears to have benefited from a total rejection of anyone associated with either Supreme Leader Khamenei or President Ahmadinejad. Such sentiment, if nearly universal, would be hard to hide even with massive cheating.

What would an Iranian “moderate” really look like? Let’s ask him. Does Rohani want to wipe Israel off the map? Will his “civil rights charter” include rights previously denied to women? To ethnic minorities in Iran? Does he condemn designating Jews as “dogs” or “pigs” or “apes?” Will he still put people in jail for dissenting from the government?

No Iranian reporter would dare ask any of those questions, nor would any western reporter for that matter. So despite the fact that Rohani would almost certainly not give many “moderate” responses to those questions, we’re going to be stuck with the mainstream press praising him as a “moderate” for the next 4 years.


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