A new dawn?

A new dawn?

There is something slightly surreal about the victory of the only cleric among Iran’s six presidential candidates being greeted as a moderate triumph and a sign of hope on a range of fronts.

Hasn’t clerical rule, after all, been among the most baleful aspects of Iranian existence post the 1979 revolution?

Furthermore, isn’t Hassan Rohani —who won more than 50 percent of the popular vote last Friday, thereby obviating the the need for a second-round run-off — very much an insider? Would his candidacy not have been thwarted had he been viewed as a serious threat to the Islamic establishment?

Well, many of the Iranians who poured out on to the streets of Teheran in a celebratory mood over the weekend would be inclined to take a somewhat more optimistic view. The post-election popular mood certainly offered a contrast to 2009, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election was widely considered to have been guaranteed via electoral fraud. Two of the more prominent would-be reformists who contested it, Mir Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi, are still under house arrest.

After the 2009 experience, it would not have been particularly surprising if large numbers of Iranians had stayed away from the polling booths last week. Instead, they came out in force: polling hours had to be extended as at least 72 percent of the electorate decided to have its say.

For many, it seems what made the choice easier was Rohani’s endorsement by ex-presidents Ali Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami. The former wanted to run himself, but was among those weeded out, alongside hundreds of other would-be candidates, by the Guardian Council, ostensibly on account of his age. The latter chose not to stand, and is deemed to have persuaded his protege Mohammad-Reza Aref to pull out from the race in order to avoid dividing the reformist vote.

There was no such pooling of resources at the other end of the arguably narrow political spectrum, which divided the conservative vote and facilitated Rohani’s massive lead over his nearest rival. It has even been suggested that Saeed Jalili, an inveterate hardliner who has lately served as Iran’s nuclear negotiator, was put up by the establishment as a means of encouraging a larger turnout, based on the expectation that a substantial proportion of the electorate would feel obliged to make an effort to keep him out of the presidency.

If that was indeed a thought-out tactic, it seems to have worked. At the same time, it is true that Rohani’s success serves to legitimize a framework that is unquestionably deplorable on any number of counts. After all, power ultimately still resides in the unelected supreme leader. It is possible to challenge it, as Ahmadinejad has occasionally done. But the extent which it can be undermined, even on the basis of an unequivocal popular mandate, remains indeterminate.

Which is not to suggest, of course, that Rohani necessarily has any intention of attempting anything along those lines. Yet the Iranians who celebrated his success - some of who sported the president-elect’s purple colour while others brandished the green associated with the 2009 movement - seem to harbour greater expectations. They may well be disappointed, just as so many of Barack Obama’s supporters have been. But then again, who knows?

Notwithstanding his insider status, Rohani has been credited with utterances that, within the given context, offer cause for hope of changes not just in style but in substance. He has spoken of human rights and attacked the concept of prisoners of conscience; the notion of transparency on the nuclear front has been revisited amid a critique of the sanctions that account for some of Iran’s most potent economic woes.