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Iranian expectations soar after Rohani's election

The surprise election of Hassan Rohani has Iranians hoping for more freedom less confrontation, but the centrist cleric faces obstacles that could derail change.

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Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, left, speaks during his meeting with President-elect Hasan Rohani in Tehran, Iran, last Sunday.

Office of the Supreme Leader/AP

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As Iranians erupted in celebration over the victory of Hassan Rohani, they knew what they wanted from their president-elect: more social freedoms, a better economy, and less “resistance” to the rest of the world.

The centrist cleric has promised them as much. But Iranian politics are an unruly tangle in which moderate agendas have often been wrecked by hard-line factions. Will Mr. Rohani be able to bring change without upending the Islamic Republic? Has this regime insider – who declared in 1999 that student protesters “would be punished as corrupt on earth who waged war on God” – learned lessons from those chaotic days and those of the 2009 Green Movement protests? And will he have the mettle to achieve the promised transformation?

“It will be challenging for Rohani to make changes. People need to be more patient; they cannot expect to see immediate results,” says Azadeh, an engineer and mother in central Tehran who asked that only her first name be used. “It’s not just up to the president. But because he is a strong personality and has a lot of support from influential politicians, he can succeed.”

Rohani was able to defeat the five conservative candidates in a surprise first-round win because of endorsements from two reformist former presidents: Mohammad Khatami, who won landslide victories in 1997 and 2001 on promises of change, and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Their support – and their apparent faith in an electoral process that many Iranians had given up on after the fraud-tainted 2009 vote – swept Rohani to what he called a “victory of wisdom and moderation” over extremism, although he remains close to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

“People want more freedom and civil rights and economic prosperity,” says a bearded musician in Tehran who plays classical Persian music. “I think that even with the factions within the establishment, Rohani will be able to fulfill his promises because the [ruling system’s] goal right now is to calm society.”

Mixed record

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Even though Rohani took an uncompromising line against pro-democracy protesters in 1999, his own children are believed to have links to the opposition Green Movement activities, as do the offspring of many senior officials.

Rohani never spoke out about the protest and crackdown in 2009, but he says he will work to release Green Movement leaders and former presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi from house arrest. 

“In the suppression of the Green Movement, Rohani did not stand up for protesters,” notes Azadeh. “Maybe it was his tactic to save face to become a presidential candidate. But let’s see what he does in the future.”

Those events were a learning experience for Rohani and to a degree Mr. Khamenei, reflected in his call just days before the election for those “who don’t want to back Islamic system” to vote anyway, for the nation. 

Rohani has promised a “civil rights charter” and has spoken frequently about broader political and social rights and less government interference in people’s lives. The conservative establishment has lined up to praise his victory, and police have clearly been ordered not to prevent street celebrations.

“These are signs of wisdom, that they have learned from the previous mistakes,” says an Iranian analyst in Tehran. “There is this strange capability of the Islamic regime for survival. Under tremendous pressures they get very close to the precipice, and something happens and they turn back ... to avoid very, very big disasters.”

“I don’t think Hassan Rohani is faking it,” says the analyst. “The question is, will he make it? Will he be allowed – or will he be able – to have room enough to do that?”

Balancing act

The answer may depend on how Rohani balances competing pressures. He knows many Revolutionary Guard commanders from his role managing the 1980s Iran-Iraq War, but he is also close to figures like Mr. Rafsanjani, who were pilloried by hard-liners for fomenting the 2009 “sedition” that shook the regime to the core.

“There has always been some apprehension about [Rohani] in the security and intelligence establishment, about his hard-line credentials being insufficient on national security,” says an Iranian political scientist in Washington. “So he’s going to have some problems with those guys, no matter what.”

His tough approach to the 1999 student uprising came amid fear of “chaos and a real collapse of the system,” says the academic. “That position does not necessarily repudiate the overall moderate orientation [today]. The time was different, and of course [Rohani] has grown and changed.”

As for chances of a resurgence of the vigilante groups that were active during the Khatami era, and deployed in the 2009 crackdown?

“There is a growing sense among even hardcore conservatives that those tactics are no longer paying off or could be deployed,” says the political scientist. “I’m not ruling out the possibility of those vigilantes regrouping and starting again; that depends very much on how Rohani reacts and how Rohani plays the game.”

The Monitor correspondent and sources have been left unnamed for security reasons.

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