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Iran election's surprise winner

The unexpected victory of Hassan Rohani In Iran's presidential election confirms his hint that legitimacy lies with the people, not the turbaned cleric elite.

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Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (left), met with President-elect Hassan Rohani in Tehran June 16.

Reuters

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Voters in Iran were not allowed a wide range of candidates in Friday’s election for a new president. But they certainly made the most of it. They decisively chose Hassan Rohani in a huge turnout, exploiting what little liberty they have to signal a need for change.

As a Muslim cleric whose PhD thesis from a Scottish university was on the flexibility of sharia law, Mr. Rohani seems to know that Iran’s 34-year-old Islamic revolution has failed to define the source of authority for the country’s rulers. His presidential decisions will surely be subject to the whims of the unelected supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But Rohani hints that it is the people and their own religiosity that matters most. 

“You demonstrated that God will not materialize change in any country, unless the nation truly wants it,” he said after his victory.

That a democracy must rest on the sovereignty and conscience of its people is a concept currently roiling the Middle East from Egypt to Turkey to Syria. Iran’s 2009 upheaval after a rigged election was a model for the Arab Spring but also weakened the shaky notion of imposing Islam through the power of the state. Mr. Khamenei, in fact, has lately had to appeal to Iranian nationalism and less to Shiite theology (and his own dictatorial authority).

Rohani’s win came in part because of a promise to ease restrictions on women, allow Internet freedom, and release hundreds of political prisoners who are in jail “just for their ideas,” as he put it. Even if he is sincere, he will be put to the test, however, if he moves to end the house arrests of Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi, leaders of the 2009 protests.

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