Should Iranians Be Celebrating Their New President So Soon?
Rouhani supporters in Tehran. Image via
At 11 PM on Friday night, voting in Iran's 2013 presidential election ended. By Saturday afternoon, the result was clear: Hassan Rouhani, a 65-year-old Shia cleric and "moderate," had won by a landslide. That means nuke-loving, Holocaust-denying President Ahmadinejad, who has run the country into the ground since 2005 (and once claimed there were no gay Iranians), is finally on his way out.
To the millions of angry young voters who flooded the streets after blatant vote-rigging back in the 2009 election, it seems Rouhani was the best of a bad bunch. As soon as the result was announced, thousands partied in the streets of Tehran, mostly chanting their support for Rouhani and his “hope and prudence” platform, which promised normalization of relations with the West, the toning down of nuclear rhetoric, and controls on the hated "morality police," whose duties seemed to include beating up women for not wearing their hijabs properly.
Turnout at the polls was high. According to Iran’s Interior Ministry—who took time out from torturing students in the basement—some 72 percent of those who could vote, did. But that doesn’t mean it was a fair fight. Of the hundreds of candidates who tried to run, only eight were deemed "suitable" by the religious elite who run the show in Tehran. The vote may even have been fiddled with among them. But the support for Rouhani, especially from the Green Movement protesters of 2009, seems to have been genuine.
Hassan Rouhani. Image via
Whether anything will actually change is another matter. The country’s "supreme leader" Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is thought to call the shots on all the real issues, with the elected president doing little more than setting the tone for the debate. If Rouhani can’t fix relations with the US or convince the world that Iran isn’t hell-bent on wiping Israel off the map, then crippling EU and US sanctions will continue and a nasty situation will get worse. With Iran now backing murderous Hezbollah militants across the border in Syria, change can’t come soon enough.
Since November 2011, when a mob of Ahmadinejad’s religious zealots ripped it to shreds, the British Embassy in Tehran has been closed, and relations between the two nations are at an all-time low. Surprisingly, that didn’t stop British Iranians from voting. On Friday, just as they did in Iran, people lined up around the block at the Iranian consulate in London, ID in hand. I wanted to speak to some of those who voted (and some who didn’t bother), so I headed to West Kensington, home of London’s biggest Persian community.
Hossein, an Iranian expat from West London.
Ali, a shopkeeper who sells Iranian produce, voted for Rouhani: “He’s very good—everyone thinks he’s good. Since the UK Embassy closed, prices have gone up and people are very unhappy—I think this will change.” Ali’s friend, Hamid, was hopeful, but said he’d seen it all before: “I voted for Rouhani, too. But at the end of the day, a mullah is a mullah—they’re basically all the same and I’ll believe in change when I see it.”
Hossein, who runs a shop down the road, was a bit more positive: “There’s not such a big difference between the candidates, but these people are under real pressure and I think there’s a change coming—you’ve got Iran propping up Hezbollah in Syria and a nuclear program that everyone else hates. It really has to end.”
Massoud, who arrived in London in 1976 and now drives a “Tehran Taxi” around the city, was much more cynical: “I’m literally shocked that people were out celebrating; this guy Rouhani is [part of the same system] that was ordering the killings of the rioters last time. In 2009, these young people were wearing green and marching against the government—now they’re out celebrating. I just don’t understand it. There’s really nothing to celebrate.”
Massoud saw the result as a success of the Ayatollah’s media manipulation machine: “Iranians are being very naive—they live in such depression and with such restrictions on every part of life that the smallest promise will give them hope. That’s what Rouhani and the government have succeeded in doing—telling people they have a choice when, really, it’s a choice between a few puppets of the regime.”
Massoud, a skeptical Iranian taxi driver.
Asked if Rouhani might have changed, Massoud laughed: “We live in hope, but not really.” He continued, “You’ve got girls dancing in the street in Tehran without hijabs right now, and they think that, in two weeks, they’ll be able to take them off permanently. No way—it’s not going to happen. The people who are hopeful now are wrong. Why have hope? Iranians have had hope for 30 years. The Islamic system in Iran is nonsense, and all the leaders care about nothing but themselves. As long as Khamenei is in charge, Iran is in trouble. These people are murderers.” Massoud did not vote.
Whatever happens, it’s going to be a long road. With much of the mainstream media fawning over Rouhani as a “centrist,” a “moderate,” and a “bridge-builder,” it’s easy to forget that Iran is likely to remain at least partly run from the shadows by a secretive crowd of black-cloaked mullahs. As Massoud pointed out, Rouhani isn’t exactly a liberal. That said, he has promised to release activists who’ve been locked up since the 2009 protests. If that actually happens when he takes power in August, it will clearly be a good sign. Next on his to-do list will be making friends with the elite, who currently aren't his biggest fans, then gently enchanting Obama. If he can succeed at that, maybe sanctions will ease and life for ordinary Iranians will get better.
And it could have been much worse. Until last week, most pundits (including Hooshang Amirahmadi, a presidential hopeful I spoke to a couple of weeks back) were predicting a win for Saeed Jalili, the country’s chief nuclear negotiator and all-around loose cannon. For the time being, the parties in Tehran are ongoing. Whether the young, sane people of Iran—of which there are many—will keep celebrating remains to be seen.
Follow Alex on Twitter: @alexchitty
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