A joke circulating in Tehran on election day was that in most countries people vote to make a candidate president, while in Iran people vote to prevent candidates from becoming president.
In a way, the vote for Hassan Rowhani, who was elected president of Iran last week, began as a protest vote. Iranians are not fond of clerics, but weighing their choices, Iranians decided the centrist, smiling cleric with his white turban and salt-and-pepper beard was by far their best hope for change.
The enthusiasm and momentum for Rowhani swelled in the days before the election, and Iranians came out in their millions to keep any one of Rowhani’s conservative rivals from winning. By choosing the candidate least identified with the recent policies of the ruling system, a majority sent a strong message to the Supreme Leader and the regime, who they believe stole the 2009 election from the leaders of the Green Movement.
In Rowhani the people found a man willing to be outspoken about the grave problems of rampant unemployment, a depreciating currency, and lack of government accountability. Rowhani also spoke openly about the discrimination against women and the pervasive presence of the morals police and the security agencies in the lives of Iranians.
The question is whether Rowhani can deliver on the hopes he ignited in the country. He will have to deal with a conservative parliament unsympathetic to his policies; a Supreme Leader in the person of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who believes compromise with the West over Iran’s nuclear program is equivalent to surrender, and Revolutionary Guard commanders who remain hard liners on domestic security and foreign policy issues and who likely resent that one of them — Tehran's mayor, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf — failed to win the election. The economy is in shambles due to foreign sanctions and the outgoing president’s wasteful and misguided policies.
Rowhani has received the endorsement of two former presidents, Mohammad Khatami and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who have emerged as leaders of the reform movement. Both men are detested by the conservatives, yet his message to the Iranian people after his victory, Rowhani acknowledged and identified himself with them. He is a seasoned diplomat and politician. He can draw on a pool of well-trained technocrats marginalized by the conservatives and by outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s populist temperament. He has talked of releasing political prisoners; and if this turns out to include the leaders of the Green Movement, under house arrest for over four years, this may open the door to a reconciliation between the reformers and their conservative rivals.
Iran has seen many moments of hope for genuine change in the past. This election, inadvertently, has turned out to be one of them.
This article appeared in the New York Time's "Room for Debate" section, http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2013/06/17/hopes-for-change-in-iran/change-may-be-greater-than-anyone-in-iran-expected.