Iran votes for change

Iran votes for change

The surprise winner of a presidential election has the people of Iran hoping for a brighter future.

Thousands of Iranians took to the streets over the weekend in Tehran, but they were not there to chant either "Death to America" or denounce their own authoritarian leaders as oppressive foes of democracy.

Instead, they were celebrating the election of Hassan Rowhani, the favorite of those advocating reform, as the nation's new president. In a race in which Rowhani came from behind at a gallop, he collected 50.7 percent of more than 36 million votes cast. His closest competitor received only 16.5 percent of the vote.

Rowhani said after the votes were counted that he is grateful to God that "once again rationality and moderation has shined on Iran." His election is perceived as an opportunity for Iran to abandon its combative stance with other countries, particularly the United States. Rowhani expressed hope that Iran can engage in "constructive dialogue" with the United States.

There is no question that Rowhani's election comes as good news for supporters of more liberal government policies toward those who differ with the ruling government. The incoming president himself stated his election represents a "new opportunity" for "those who respect democracy, interaction and free dialogue."

But it would be wise both for the people inside and outside of Iran not to get too excited too soon about prospects for change.

Rowhani takes office in mid-August, but key decisions will remain in the hands of ruling clerics and their military backers, the ruthless Revolutionary Guard. It's also important to remember that Rowhani is not an outsider to Iran's peculiar brand of theocratic politics, but a longtime supporter of and participant in it.

Rowhani was among a phalanx of supporters of the late Ayatollah Khomeini, who returned from Paris to lead Iran after the shah was overthrown in 1979. He has been a participant in governmental affairs for decades, to the point that the New York Times described him as a man "at the center of Iran's conservative establishment."

If Rowhani had not been an acceptable candidate to the country's real rulers, his name would have been stricken along with others from the presidential ballot.

Nonetheless, Rowhani is seen more as a results-oriented, less-ideological ruler than the outgoing president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and he'll need to be flexible to turn Iran around.

Iran is a nation in turmoil, suffering economically under the decisions of ruling clerics and increasingly at odds with other nations because of its nuclear weapons building program. International economic sanctions imposed to discourage Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons continue to bite, but the country's leaders have shown no inclination to change their direction no matter how much their people suffer.

The Iranian people have become increasingly less patient with their government over the years. A large percentage of the country's population have no memory of the oppressive rule of the Shah of Iran, but those who do realize they traded an oppressive regime for an even more oppressive regime.

Four years ago, dissenters sought to change the country's direction in a presidential election, with the final results bringing allegations that voters were miscounted and the results stolen. Two presidential candidates, leaders of the so-called Green Movement, a pro-democracy effort, were subsequently imprisoned.

It would, of course, be nice to think that this country's difficult relations with Iran are about to change for the better, that Rowhani's election lessens the possibility of conflict over Iran's nuclear ambitions. But it's a long way from here to there, particularly considering who wields the real power in that country. Still, it looks as if the Iranian people have chosen well for themselves and the world. In the power keg that is the Middle East, that's good news.

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