Winston Churchill’s famous encapsulation of Russia as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma might well be applied to Iran, which to most outsiders is a mysterious and heavily policed theocracy, a land where they don’t “do” democracy. And in truth, Iran is not a free democracy. In spite of that, voters in the presidential election have turned out in vast numbers to make maximum use of the admittedly limited choices available to them. In electing the most moderate of the candidates on offer by a thumping margin, they have delivered a stunning rebuke to the country’s clerical paramount leader, the so-called Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei.
Even after the clerical and political establishment mobilised behind Ayatollah Khamenei’s protégé, Saeed Jalili won only a derisory 11 per cent of the ballots, whereas Hassan Rouhani, the outsider, romped home with more than 50 per cent.
This surprising display of popular power will upset some people’s misconceived ideas about Iranian society. The big question, though, remains what exactly is a “moderate” by the standards of the Iranian system. It is very welcome that Mr Rouhani has called for the release of political prisoners, for a less pervasive security apparatus, more equality for women and less confrontational relations with the West. But we don’t know as yet what he would do with Iran’s nuclear programme, the pursuit of which has increased the danger of war with Israel and resulted in the imposition of swingeing sanctions that have wrought havoc with Iran’s economy. He has only said that he wants an end to the current impasse. Nor do we know whether, as President from August onwards, he will try to disengage Iran from its growing involvement in propping up Bashar al-Assad’s embattled regime in Syria.
Even if Mr Rouhani does turn out to be the voice of reason on these and other matters, we should not be under the illusion that he can necessarily deliver change, because this is where Iran really is an enigma insofar as its system combines both democratic and theocratic elements and the border where one stops and the other starts is tricky to discern. Presidents come and go in Iran but the Supreme Leader and his apparatus remain. Iran has had moderate presidents before in Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, both of whom found their room for manoeuvre curtailed by the actions of the Ayatollah.
Nevertheless, it would be the height of folly if the West were to fail to grasp the hand of friendship held out by the people of Iran in this election. Ordinary Iranians have made it plain that they are weary of endless confrontation with the outside world and of the demonisation of the West, especially because the price paid for this aggressive posturing appears to have been poverty and high inflation. We must be wary of heeding the unfortunate example of Israel whose right-wing government has a vested interest in sabre-rattling, and which has predictably greeted the good news from Tehran with a sour face.
No one suggests that the sanctions regime should be scrapped overnight simply because the new President of Iran sounds less warlike than the last one. But we should make it plain that economic penalties will be eased if the new President continues to show genuine goodwill, and if he can assert his authority against the Supreme Leader. It won’t be easy, and many unknowns remain. But if the opportunity exists to reset relations with the leaders of this key regional power, we should take it.