Iran elects centrist to replace contentious Ahmadinejad

06/15/2013 4:03 PM

06/15/2013 6:11 PM

Centrist Hasan Rowhani won an absolute majority in Iran’s presidential elections, a surprise outcome that could help raise spirits in a population fed up by the economic distress and international isolation that marked the era of outgoing leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The ministry of the interior said Rowhani, a Shiite Muslim cleric, won some 18.6 million votes, nearly 51 per cent of the vote in a six-man field, three times the tally for runner-up Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, the mayor of Tehran, who received only 6.1 million. In third place was nuclear arms negotiator Saeed Jalili, who got just 4.1 million votes.

The U.S. government lauded the Iranian people for making a choice amidst heavy government censorship and offered the prospect of direct U.S.-Iran talks on the future of Iran’s nuclear program.

“We respect the vote of the Iranian people and congratulate them for their participation in the political process and their courage in making their voices heard,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said in a statement Saturday.

“It is our hope that the Iranian government will heed the will of the Iranian people and make responsible choices that create a better future for all Iranians. The United States remains ready to engage the Iranian government directly in order to reach a diplomatic solution that will fully address the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.”

Voter turnout, 36.7 million, was just under three quarters of the 50.5 million eligible voters, a high figure in view of some public calls for a boycott.

An enormous crowd of chanting and cheering supporters flooded Haft-e-Tir Square in the center of Tehran and Kharim Khan street, where Rowhani’s headquarters were located. Many of them wore purple t-shirts or scarves, the color of his campaign.

Rowhani, a moderate conservative, apparently intends to take on a different color, adopting the green mantle of the reform movement that failed to win the presidency four years ago in an election that many said was marred by massive fraud. On Friday night, he tweeted to followers: "Let’s do something to celebrate success tomorrow; the day that our purple vote gives way to the green.”

While Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Shiite supreme leader, sets all major policy and can block almost any action by the president, Rowhani could have an impact across society and in Iran’s relations with the rest of the world. He has pledged to reverse the damage done during Ahmadinejad’s eight years in office.

Rowhani’s pledges during the campaign to improve the country’s human rights practices won him wide support among young Iranians, who packed his rallies and cheered him like a rock star.

In Mashad, Iran’s second biggest city, the 64-year-old Rowhani Wednesday night pledged before nearly 50,000 people to restore safety and academic freedom to universities, in contrast with Ahmadinejad, who often sent in the police.

“We are talking about running a country, not a police station,” he declared to shouts and chants.

“I promise all of you that the era of extremism will end,” he said.

In a televised debate on social and cultural policy a week before the vote, he called for equal rights for women, freedom of the press, an abandonment of the ban on satellite television receivers, and for the government to remove itself from the arts in general. “If we want to eliminate corruption from the society, we should give freedom to the press,” he said, opening the prospect of a dramatic shift from the present situation in which the media act as the regime’s mouthpiece.

Like all eight of the contenders for Iran’s highest elected office – two dropped out in the final week –Rowhani was chosen for the contest by the Guardian Council, which reports to the supreme leader. He is an establishment insider, sitting on two top governing bodies that also report to Khamenei, the Expediency Council and the Council of Experts.

Unlike other candidates, Rowhani brings his own think tank to the job, having headed the Center for Strategic Research, which analyzes economic and social issues as well as foreign policy, for 22 years. The center is linked to the powerful Expediency Council, a body appointed by Khamenei which supervises all branches of government.

But Rowhani also is a former negotiator on the most contentious issue between Iran and the international community, the country’s nuclear enrichment program, which the U.S., Israel and other countries fear may lead to production of a nuclear weapon.

He made a point in many presentations of saying that while he served as negotiator under the last reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, the major powers did not refer the issue to the U.N. Security Council, as has happened repeatedly during Ahmadinejad’s tenure.

Ahmadinejad also provoked criticism and tensions by suggesting Israel did not have the right to exist and by calling a conference of so-called experts who deny there was a Holocaust during World War II, bringing more opprobrium on Iran from the U.N. Security Council. It’s possible that all this could change.

Although not a reformist as such, he is close to the reformist group and was their candidate. Possibly the biggest boost to his candidacy came last Tuesday, when reformist Mohammad Reza Aref dropped out of the race in favor of Rowhani, at Khatami’s request. Among the three conservative candidates, by comparison, Jalili, former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati and Qalibaf, none dropped out, and they all divided the vote among them.

Besides winning Khatami’s backing, Rowhani won the endorsement of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a centrist who preceded Khatami, who is possibly the most popular politician in Iran. Rafsanjani, at 78, sought while president to carry out less ideological foreign policy, with the aim of integrating Iran into the world economy, and he’s called for reducing tensions with the United States and Israel.

Rohani studied at a Shiite seminary and has a bachelor’s degree in law as well as master’s degree and a Ph.D. from British universities. He served five terms in the parliament, rising to deputy speaker and head of the defense and foreign policy committees. According to his official biography, carried by the Iranian media, he speaks fluent English, Arabic and Persian and has written nearly 100 books and articles as well as conducting 700 different research projects.

A question was raised during the campaign about his academic credentials, for his website had stated that he’d received his Ph.D. degree from Glasgow University. A Persian specialist at Radio Free Europe’s Persian service checked with the university to makes sure he’d graduated there, and the university had no record. Subsequently, Rowhani’s institute changed the listing on the web site to the Glasgow Caledonian University, a less prestigious institution in Glasgow.

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