Iranians put hopes for change in pragmatic insider

June 17, 2013

By Una Galani

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.

Iranians have voted for an end to the conservative status quo. The surprise victory of Hassan Rohani, the sole moderate candidate, in the presidential race has shown the level of public discontent with the Islamic Republic’s hardliners, whose voices silenced others in the last few years. The high turnout also returns legitimacy to the electoral process after the rigged vote of 2009. Iran’s complex power structure means that radical shifts at home or abroad are unlikely. But the mood in Tehran has shifted.

Rohani is, in the Iranian context, a moderate. A former nuclear negotiator with the West, he says he wants to save the economy, implement a “civil charter” and create a less security-heavy environment. He also advocates a less confrontational relationship with the West, which tightened sanctions against Iran during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s fiery eight-year presidency.

Easing sanctions, which halved the country’s oil exports, is key to any economic turnaround. The currency has lost more than two-thirds of its dollar value over the past two years. Inflation has risen to 32 percent and the unemployment rate stands at 12 percent, according to official figures that may hide a harsher reality. Gross domestic product will shrink for a second consecutive year in 2013, according to International Monetary Fund forecasts.

The rial strengthened around 6 percent on news of Rohani’s win, but how much more he can achieve will depend on the will of “Supreme Leader” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who has the final say on nuclear and foreign policy matters. That includes the situation in Syria, where Iran is also pitted against the West. Past initiatives by one of Rohani’s predecessors, reformist Mohammad Khatami, have been sunk or undone by resistance from conservative factions. The public mood could however persuade Khamenei he must soften his position on some issues.

For the West, it will take more than a change of tone by an Iranian president, whatever his reputation or intentions, to unwind the economic sanctions. But Rohani’s victory will embolden Iranian reformists and enable the country to better respond to the needs of a population, two-thirds of which were born after the 1979 revolution. At the very least, Khamenei’s apparent decision not to interfere with the vote shows that Iran maybe be moving again – this time, in the right direction.

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