The vibrant elections that have unexpectedly thrown up Hassan Rouhani — a moderate cleric — as Iran’s next President have once again exposed those quick to label Iranian democracy a sham. Mr. Rouhani’s victory following an electoral landslide, brushing aside his supposedly favoured conservative rivals, has demonstrated that the expression of popular will and its capacity to breathe fresh life into the system is far from extinguished. These elections are also important for another reason: they impart a sense of closure by healing the wounds left behind by the 2009 presidential elections, which had triggered unprecedented street protests after many Iranians suspected those polls had been rigged to give Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a second term. Four years on, the Islamic Republic appears more politically unified and ready to engage with the rest of the world.
Mr. Rouhani’s victory is the product of the complex, competitive dynamics that the ‘managed’ pluralism of the Iranian political system sometimes generates. The Guardian Council overseeing the elections disqualified Mr. Ahmadinejad’s nominee, Esfandiar Mashaei, as well as the former President, Ali Akbar Rafsanjani. While Mashaei supporters had no one place to turn to, the latter’s centrist supporters promptly joined the reformists in rallying behind Mr. Rouhani as their sole candidate. Mr. Rafsanjani and another former President, Mohammad Khatami, deserve special applause for their nimble footwork in forming this unprecedented coalition which, in the end, unlocked a surge of youthful energy that energised the polls. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s appeal to the people to come out and vote irrespective of their electoral choice seems to have played a significant part in generating voter participation on an astounding scale. Above all, the Iranian people deserve credit for not allowing their hopes to extinguish and keeping faith in the capacity of their political class to carry out a critically important course correction. Mr. Rouhani’s emergence as President offers a unique opportunity for the establishment of a mutually beneficial relationship between Iran and the West, especially the United States. The U.S. has to understand that the moderates in Iran can consolidate themselves only if they deliver on the economy — a question that is inextricably linked to the lifting of sanctions and progress on the nuclear table. The mantra of regime change will have to be replaced by a doctrine of pervasive engagement if meaningful progress is to be achieved. For India, Mr. Rohani’s rise rekindles hopes of revival of the Khatami era, when the relationship between the two countries was at its peak.