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Have Rights, Will Vote

 

By turning out in huge numbers to elect their president, Iranians have sent a clear signal to the West that its dream of changing the regime from inside is far-fetched. Saurabh Kumar Shahi reports from Teheran
SAURABH KUMAR SHAHI | Issue Dated: June 21, 2013, New Delhi
Tags : Iranian Presidential elections | Ayatollah Khamenei | Hassan Rouhani | Ahmadinejad | Saeed Jalili |
 

If you followed some of the commentaries in the western press on the Iranian Presidential elections in the days leading to it, you can be pardoned for believing that it is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, and not the people of Iran, who would elect the next president. Take for example The Washington Post. A day before the polls, it concluded in its editorial that “Mr. Rouhani, who has emerged as the default candidate of Iran’s reformists, will not be allowed to win.”

Or the Iranian-Israeli commentator Meir Javedanfar who maintained that “There is little doubt that Mr Rowhani and the Stanford-educated reformist Mohammad Reza Aref are far more popular than the conservative candidates. However, the supreme leader would not allow votes in their favour to be counted.”

However, when the dust settled by the evening of 15th June, Hassan Rouhani, a member of the Assembly of Experts, the Expediency Council and the Supreme National Security Council, trounced the other five candidates with such a huge margin that there was no need left to go in for a face-off. And in his victory, he has broken a lot of myths carefully crafted and propagated  by the West.

The election in Iran this time was under intense international scrutiny. That I shared the International Media Centre with other 450 foreign journalists is a testimony to that. To put it in perspective, just a month ago, the equivalent numbers for the Pakistani election was just over 300 journalists. And considering the protests after the 2009 elections, which the opposition candidate claimed was rigged, but failed to give proof for the same, it was not surprising. However, what was surprising in this elections was very limited presence of security forces in the city. Something that did not go down well with many western reporters who were expecting a Gulag in place. It was also widely said in the western press that the majority of people were “disillusioned” with the system and would not turn up for vote. However, when the day came, Iranians came out in historic numbers to exercise their mandate.

“The turnout for the vote - a whopping 72%, forecast accurately by pre-election polling - signals another chink in the armour of conventional hasbara. Iranians, by and large, have faith that their voices matter and that change - or consistency - and progress can be achieved through the ballot box and by collective engagement within their nation's political environment,” says independent Iranian analyst Nima Shirazi.

In the run-up to the elections, it was becoming rather obvious that Centrist Rouhani had an upper hand over his Principlist and Reformist rivals. While the Principlists were divided with as many as four candidates in the fray, the Iranian political shark Rafsanjani and ex-president Khatami played smartly by asking the Reformist contender Mohammad Reza Aref to withdraw. There were other factors too that helped him.

Principlists, after two tenures of President Ahmadinejad, were facing a massive anti-incumbency, without the benefit of a charismatic personality like Ahmadinejad. The tightening of sanctions on Iran, described proudly by one US officials as the “most stringent and most widespread in the history of any nation-state”, did led to disenchantment among the average voters for the Principlist camp. Rouhani's message of easing the economic crisis by “efficiently managing” the economy did find resonance among the voters. There were those who still put sovereignty over economy, but such motivated voters were clearly in minority as the result showed.

Also, it was for the first time the live presidential debates were telecast. And the way Rouhani articulated his arguments left him shining in front of his Principlist opponents, especially against  Iran's Chief Nuclear Negotiator Saeed Jalili, who, although an endearing person, was completely out of depth when it came to politics. The other Principlist opponent, Teheran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, was a good bet, especially considering how he managed to do a make-over of once mismanaged Teheran. However, his failure to lure voters outside the big cities, finally sunk him.

After every debate, there was a visible spike in the ratings of Rouhani, whereas Jalili and Qalibaf saw their fortune tank.

Let us analyse what this win means for Iran and the world. Rouhani was the chief nuclear negotiator during Khatami's period. He is known to mix his rigorous training as a politician with his impressive education record—he has a post-graduate and Doctorate degree from Glasgow—to put forward an effective diplomacy. Unlike Ahmadinejad, he does not believe in rhetoric. He also maintained during his run-up to the elections that he aspires to bring back the relation between Iran and the US from the current position of “hostility” to the previous position of “tension”. But that does not mean Rouhani will compromise with Iran's sovereign right to enrich Uranium. Especially so because he has burnt his fingers previously.

“Certainly, permanent cessation is 'off the table' even with a new President. Giving up enrichment would be tantamount to Iran giving up sovereignty over its soil -- a comparison, by the way, that Rafsanjani himself made. Rouhani was widely criticized during his campaign for his role in the nuclear negotiations with the EU-3 in which Iran agreed to  the policy of suspension of enrichment as a voluntary goodwill gesture during the Khatami administration, but this supposedly 'temporary' suspension was dragged out by the EU side for almost 3 years, and ultimately got Iran nothing in return for its gesture because the EU-3 had already agreed with the US that they would not recognize any enrichment in Iran, regardless of what they had told the Iranians when the Iranians first agreed to the suspension,” says analyst Cyrus Safdari, who keeps a tab on West-Iran negotiations.

In fact, the pundits in DC and Tel Aviv, including some neo-cons and Iranian Royalists, have already stated to give it a spin that elections does not matter and that it is the office of Supreme Leader that takes the final call. One wonders, if that was the case, why were the same pundits enraged that Mir Hossain Musavi was “not allowed to win” the last time.

It will be interesting to watch the next round of negotiations between the world powers and Iran. One must not expect much, keeping previous rounds in mind. However, there will indeed be a visible change in tone and demeanour.

Iranians have already sent a clear message to the West that their country stands consolidated in the face of pressure. It wants the West to understand its culture and engage accordingly. That they selected a liberal cleric over conservative technocrats tells a lot about the nation and its people. Only if the West knew.         

saurabh.shahi@thesundayindian.com

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017