Leading article: A wind of change blows from Tehran

Share

Preliminary results in Iran's elections point to a defeat, if not a rout, for allies of the country's hard-line conservative president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. As counting progressed last night, the chief winners looked likely to be the country's moderate conservatives, with reformists next, and the hardline conservatives lagging some way behind. In a highly symbolic victory, the former president, Akbar Rafsanjani, was assured election to the Assembly of Experts, the powerful religious group responsible for guiding policy and electing the Supreme Leader.

Formally, of course, President Ahmadinejad and his government will be unaffected by these elections, however unwelcome the results. Voting was for the Assembly of Experts and local councils only. The president's main electoral base, moreover, is in the countryside, so later results may limit the extent of the hardliners' defeat. And the main beneficiaries are moderate conservatives, rather than pro-Western reformers.

For all the caveats, however, the political wind in Iran seems to be blowing in a new direction. Mr Rafsanjani's victory followed his humiliation in the 2005 presidential elections, and it was by any measure a remarkable turnaround in his fortunes. The man regarded as his chief rival, Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, who is also seen as Mr Ahmadinejad's political inspiration, has enough votes to retain his seat in the Assembly, but came in only sixth. The results of the municipal elections are following a similar pattern. And the turnout, at an average of 60 per cent across the country, was high by recent Iranian standards.

The quality of Iran's democracy may leave much to be desired. But the results and the turnout taken together suggest not only that there is a relatively high level of political engagement in Iran today, but that electors are prepared to cast their votes against the status quo. These elections were always going to be seen as a verdict on Mr Ahmadinejad's controversial presidency. If present trends are borne out, that verdict will be a decisive expression of disapproval.

The question is: what effect will this negative verdict have on Iran's government and its policies? Probably, the president and his supporters will try to dismiss the results as irrelevant for the central government, or at most a disappointment. But Mr Ahmadinejad is already well past his honeymoon period. At home, he has found it harder to improve the lives of impoverished Iranians as quickly as he had hoped. His clumsy conduct of foreign policy, rhetorically tailored to his home audience, has been a serious liability abroad. A poor poll performance now could undercut his authority, and he could come under pressure to change tack.

Until now, Mr Ahmadinejad has sent ambiguous signals about how he envisages relations with the outside world. In his own terms, he has also been fortunate. US difficulties in Iraq and the upsurge in violence in the Middle East have left Iran the dominant regional power. Tehran has used its position of strength to reject all concessions on its nuclear programme, justifiably accusing Western countries of applying a double standard. A stand-off at the UN Security Council looks hard to avoid in the New Year.

The hardliners' election defeat suggests that Iranians would prefer their government to pursue a less ideologically driven policy towards the West. At best, this could encourage Mr Ahmadinejad to accept a compromise on the nuclear issue. At worst, though, it could force him on to the defensive and make him even more stubborn than before. It will take agile and well-directed Western diplomacy to tease a more normal relationship out of this domestic electoral defeat.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Riyadh is setting itself up as region’s policeman

Lina Khatib
Ed Miliband and David Cameron  

Cameron and Miliband should have faith in their bolder policies

Ian Birrell
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor