Iranian voters rejected the regime's hard line on the nuclear issue that led to a deep economic crisis. Now whether Hossan Rohani softens Iran's stance also depends on the West.
PARIS - Did the West's economic sanctions, those controversial diplomatic “weapons,” actually lead to the surprise victory of the most moderate candidate in the Iranian presidential campaign?
That explanation alone would be forgetting the irrepressible thirst for freedom of the Iranian youth and the great mobilization of the “green” reform movement that helped Hassan Rohani win the June 14 election in the first round, with 50.7% of the votes.
The Iranian voters bitter about outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s catastrophic record are the ones who were key to this victory, qualified as a “divine surprise” by the urban population. The results were celebrated in most of the country’s cities as soon as they became official on Saturday night.
They celebrated the end of eight years of Ahmadinejad presidency, synonymous with economic crisis, isolation and confrontation with the West on the issue of Iran's nuclear program.
Until now, no one had publicly claimed a connection between the catastrophic state of the country’s economy (inflation above 30%; 25% unemployment rate and even higher for the youth) and the government’s unwielding stance on the nuclear program.
While the regime was busy accusing western injustice, it should have been busy overcoming the sanctions by diversifying its economy and enforcing a “resistance” policy.
But then reality kicked back: revenue from oil dropped to half its levels of 2011 and 2012; the automotive industry collapsed (from 1.5 million to 1 million between 2011 and 2012 and expected to dip to 500,000 in 2013); difficulties in paying wages; imported medication absent from the shelves and national currency losing 75% of its value in a year and a half.
Every Iranian knows this, but it took a fight between the presidential candidates on which policy to adopt to make the voters feel free to express the discontent with their ballots. The presidential campaign was going according to script until the third televised debate on June 7 between the eight remaining candidates.
Sensing a change in the wind, hardliner Said Jalili attacked Rohani who had negotiated the nuclear dossier for Iran from 2003 to 2005, and accused him of caving into the West, and therefore betraying the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
In the light of day
Rohani responded forcefully that his decision to suspend the program in autumn 2003 had prevented Iran from being the target of the UN Security Council, while the team that succeeded him racked up four resolutions of condemnation.
Ali-Akbar Velayati, a candidate close to the Leader, took on Jalili too, saying that “diplomacy is not a minbar,” the chair on which the sermons are proclaimed.
For the first time, what used to be kept for private discussions was now exposed in the light of day.
Iranians finally understood that the conservatives were in fact quite divided over the issue, and candidates were ruled by their emotions to the point that they were not respecting the Leader who remains the true head of the Iranian State. The withdrawal of the only other reformer candidate, Mohamed Aref, finished the job for Rohani.
It is significant that the nuclear issue hadn’t been discussed before it came up in the debate. The Iranians had been judging their leaders more for how they were handling negotiations, rather than on the nuclear program itself.
“The sanctions failed to stop the Iranian Nuclear program and change the regime,” says Bernard Hourcade, research director at France's national scientific research center (CNRS). “But they did weaken and isolate Iran, and the Iranians had had enough.”
For Ali Khamenei, the election of Rohani isn’t such a bad outcome: as the leader is recovering bits of his popularity lost since 2009, when he had to back the shady reelection of Ahmadinejad. He may now send onto the international stage someone he completely trusts, someone who will earn more respect than his predecessor who'd been discredited by his blaring declarations on the Holocaust and Israel.
But what Rohani actually can offer will also depend on the West.
His election was saluted by Washington which declared the US was “ready to cooperate directly” on the nuclear issue. White House chief of staff Denis McDonough sees in this vote a “potential sign of hope.” The monarchies of the Gulf, longing for Iran’s withdrawal in Syria, also welcomed this electoral turn of events.
On the other hand, Israel Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu who is going to have a harder time convincing people of the “need” to bomb Iran, urged the international community not to “trust illusions,” and to put an end to the Iranian nuclear program “by all means necessary.”
Instead of a new regime or even a new policy, the West was delivered a new atmosphere. Will they help Rohani, facing an entire nation’s high expectations, in his endeavors? The 2003 events don’t indicate this will pan out: Rohani hadn't obtained much from the program's suspension. And in 2005, it was back on track.