Last week, Iranians went to the polls and elected a so-called “reformist” candidate to be their next president. This development may constitute change of a sort, but here’s the critical point: It’s not nearly enough.
President-elect Hassan Rohani, who will take office in August after receiving slightly more than 50 percent of the vote, was an approved candidate of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — the man who really wields the power in that Islamic republic.
It is true that Rohani is viewed as a moderate by Iranian political observers (at least, more moderate than the outgoing president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad), and if one is willing to interpret the election results generously, that could be seen as a sign that the Iranian electorate is tiring of the international sanctions that have played havoc with its economy.
We say again, though, Khamenei wields the true power in Iran. If anything is to change in that country, it must start with him, not with a candidate who could run for office only with the supreme leader’s approval.
Then there’s the question of what does it really mean to be a political moderate in Iran?
To quote Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was commenting this past weekend on the Iranian election results, “among those whose candidacies he [Khamenei] allowed was elected the candidate who was seen as less identified with the regime, who still defines the State of Israel as ‘the great Zionist Satan.’ ”
As for Rohani, he called his election win, in a televised statement, “a victory of wisdom, a victory of moderation, a victory of growth and awareness and a victory of commitment over extremism and ill temper.”
We would like to believe him, but first he must back his rhetoric with action — the proactive kind.
That means scaling back the country’s nuclear program, allowing inspectors to visit whichever sites they deem appropriate to gauge compliance with international demands, and especially to stop its outrageous saber rattling against Israel, which threatens a second Holocaust.
All these actions, though, require approval from a higher authority.
While the election alone promises little change, we’re not totally skeptical about the chances for change in Iran, particularly as it relates to its nuclear program. Yaron Sideman, Israel’s consul general to the Mid-Atlantic Region, who made his first visit to Pittsburgh two weeks ago, reminded us that Iran halted several aspects of its nuclear program in 2003 when faced with the possibility of U.S. military action following its invasion of Iraq; in other words, a credible military threat coupled with political and economic sanctions can lead to change.
Yes, that could happen again, though not without a united front from the international community, increasingly toughened sanctions and engaged diplomacy, if only through intermediaries, by the United States and its allies, which make clear that the military option is not a bluff.
But all these actions will really be directed at Khamenei, not Rohani, even though Rohani will be the man with the title, the man visiting the United Nations, and talking tough in front of the cameras (much as Ahmadinejad did). In the end, he’s just Iran’s frontman. And that’s why last week’s election, while interesting political theater, won’t change much at all.