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22 June 2013, Gateway House

In Iran now, will it be country before cause?

Hassan Rohani’s victory in the June 14 presidential election has demonstrated a growing urge among Iranians for democracy, freedom and integration with the outside world. Will Rohani be able to create an environment where pragmatic policies and national interests take precedence over revolutionary zeal?

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The presidential election in Iran on 14 June 2013, in which the centrist-reformist candidate Hassan Rohani emerged victorious in the first round, once again confirms that the people of Iran prefer peaceful, evolutionary change through elections over all other options, including domestic and foreign violence.

The election also demonstrated that whenever Iranians have had a chance to express their will freely, they have opted for reformist candidates who will promote greater democracy and freedom at home, and better relations with the outside world. During the last 16 years, only the reformist former president Mohammad Khatami has won in the first round. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s two controversial victories were achieved in the second round.

In the 1997 election, President Khatami got 80.16% of the votes and in the 2001 election he got 67.8% of the votes. The recent election was no less remarkable.  The Iranian Interior Ministry announced that  Rohani had won 50.70% of the votes, more than all the other five candidates combined. This figure is even more impressive when compared to the hard-line establishment candidate Saeed Jalili, who got less than a quarter of the votes that Rohani got.

It is important to bear in mind that Rohani’s victory was not due to economic issues. Two conservative candidates, Mohsen Rezaei and Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, spoke in greater detail about ways to solve Iran’s economic problems. It was not even due to his more moderate approach toward the nuclear issue, because Ali Akbar Velayati attacked Jalili’s uncompromising nuclear policies even more harshly than Rohani did.

What was unique in Rohani’s debates was that he spoke about an open political climate, the freeing of political prisoners, an end to the high-security environment, and greater freedom of expression. The election was a referendum against the hardliners, in favour of greater freedoms at home and for moderation and cooperation abroad.

Rohani’s statement, that Iran should now decide whether it wants to act like a country or a revolution, is important.  Since the start of the Islamic revolution, Iranian officials have championed a cause, rather than national interests. Rohani wants to reverse that trend. This is perhaps the first time since the revolution that pragmatic policies and national interests may take precedence over revolutionary zeal.

Rohani’s victory should also be also looked at in the context of what it means for Iran’s nuclear policies, his openness to dialogue with the U.S. and the implications for the West Asia region. In his first press conference, Rohani stressed that his foreign policy will prioritise “amicable and close” relations with all the neighbouring countries, especially stressing friendly relations with Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states—which are important to Iran both in terms of politics and the economy.

Rohani emphasised that the Syrian conflict should be resolved only by the Syrians and without any foreign involvement. He suggested holding a conference of permanent UN Security Council members and Syria’s neighbours to set a date for elections under UN supervision. All sides, he said, should accept the outcome of that election. If the present carnage is to stop and if the West is not going to get more  involved in the Syrian civil war, Rohani’s proposal may be the only sensible solution.

With the continuing instability Afghanistan, which is likely to intensify after the withdrawal of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF),  there is an urgent need for Afghanistan’s neighbours, including Iran, to get together to ensure a peaceful transition to an independent Afghanistan. The withdrawal of foreign forces can either set the stage for conflict in and around Afghanistan, or it can be used as an opportunity to knit the region together.

Other countries in West Asia only selectively cooperate with the sanctions imposed on Iran by the U.S. Congress. Iran may have the biggest deposits of gas in the world, according to recent surveys; it already has the second-largest oil deposits in the world. This makes Iran particularly crucial to the economic powers emerging in Asia, including India. How Rohani negotiates the support of other countries in the region on the sanctions and trade with Iran, remains to be seen.

India can extend a friendly hand to Iran’s new president by convening a regional dialogue on Afghanistan and for forging new economic and energy cooperation. By involving Iran more closely in regional economic cooperation, India can also pave the way for integrating Iran more closely with the international community.

Farhang Jahanpour is a former professor and dean of the Faculty of Languages at the University of Isfahan and a former Fulbright Senior Research Scholar at Harvard. 

This article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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