Much of what transpired in Iran during the presidential election on Friday, June 14 (Flag Day in the U.S.), won by Hassan Rowhani should be familiar to American citizens: A candidate replacing a term-limited president contrasting himself with a former conservative government, campaigning on social and human rights issues along with a promise for an improved economy, combined with a split vote for his opposition that assured his victory by less than a one per-cent margin. Echoes of the American election in 2012 and many earlier elections are clearly present in Iran in 2013. Apparently Iranian and American voters are more alike than either group realizes.
And like American elections often are, the Iranian presidential elections did not turn out as expected—happily for many Iranians, and not so happily for Western critics of Iranian society. The victorious Mr. Rowhani, seen as the most moderate of all the six candidates, was not predicted to win by Western pundits, who followed their own superficial ideological bias, predicting that the election would be rigged by ultra-conservative mullahs and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps to favor the most conservative contender. As Iranians turned out in huge numbers—more than 80 percent of eligible voters by the most recent estimates—they gave the lie to this superficial Western view.
Mr. Rowhani’s election was engineered with adept politicking worthy of Democratic mastermind David Axelrod. Mr. Rowhani was somewhat of a dark horse at the beginning of Iran’s short campaign period. Sharp, well-articulated political speeches, including criticism of the current government, garnered him immediate attention as a politician differentiated from the pack of conservatives favored by Iran’s leaders. His endorsement by former Presidents Khatami and Rafsanjani, both seen as relatively moderate, gave him a large boost. Finally, the strategic withdrawal of the other moderate candidate, Mohammad Reza Aref in favor of Mr. Rowhani, sealed the victory.
A friend who works for Press TV, Iran's official international English language broadcast service, confirmed this dynamic: “After the withdrawal of Mr. Aref, the people saw that Mr. Rowhani had a chance of winning. Many who had planned to boycott the election then decided to vote.” The surge occurred in the two days before the election. As a result, the three conservative candidates split the conservative vote, and Mr. Rowhani as the only moderate surged in the polls and in the vote.
Mr. Rowhani’s victory was decisive. He emerged on Saturday garnering three times the votes of his nearest rival for office, and thus avoiding a runoff election. The results have been met with delight in Iran. Speaking to a journalist friend in Tehran, he reported that the people were celebrating Mr. Rowhani’s victory in the streets in huge numbers. “They are very, very happy,” he exclaimed.
Mr. Rowhani‘s social issues agenda was devoured by the voters, hungry for change. He vowed to increase freedom of expression, free political prisoners, establish greater roles for women and encourage support of the arts, as well as the most important issue for Iranians, to support the Iranian economy, which has been hit hard by U.S. and European sanctions. This makes the election similar to those elections everywhere, where social and pocketbook issues are the main concerns of the electorate.
From the myopic perspective of Washington, London and other Western capitals, however, the only issue worth talking about was Iran’s nuclear program. From the perspective of the Iranian citizenry, this was a minor issue, if it was mentioned at all. At best, the nuclear question was seen as an unfair characterization by the U.S. and its allies of a program in which Iranians take great pride, because of its demonstration of Iranian technological progress and knowledge. Concomitantly, U.S. sanctions designed to force Iran to stop enriching uranium were met with anger and defiance by the everyday voter.
Even with the Iranian public downplaying the nuclear issue, there is active speculation that the election of Mr. Rowhani may open a new chapter in Western-Iranian relations. Mr. Rowhani was the Iranian nuclear negotiator from 2003-2005. In 2004 on his watch Iran voluntarily suspended uranium enrichment as a confidence building measure in hoped-for negotiations with the West. The United States and other Western powers pointedly ignored this gesture, and imposed further sanctions. After the election of President Ahmadinejad in 2005, uranium enrichment was resumed.
It is important to note that despite the obvious delight of Iranian voters at Mr. Rowhani’s victory, his election is somewhat symbolic. His moderate views may be difficult to implement, given the relative weakness of the Iranian presidency compared to the nation’s Spiritual Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamene’i , who occupies the principal seat of power in the Iranian government. Even outgoing President Ahmadinejad, seen as a conservative, frequently ran afoul of Ayatollah Khamene’i, with detrimental effects on his ability to lead.
Even so, this election will go far in mitigating the public feeling that the last election, in 2009, had been stolen by the government to give President Ahmadinejad a second term, rather than electing the more moderate Mir-Hossein Mousavi. This perception led to riots and demonstrations in Tehran that lasted for months.
The current election celebrations in Iran are reminiscent of those greeting President Obama in his victories of 2008 and 2012. As Americans know, a candidate’s promises are often more celebrated than the reality of governance. This may be Mr. Rowhani’s fate, but for the time being his election is a bright spot in a dismal region of the world.
William O. Beeman is Department Chair of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota, a veteran commentator on Iran politics, and a longtime editorial contributor for New America Media.