TEHRAN — The stunning landslide election of Hassan Rowhani as Iran’s next president highlighted a deep frustration among many Iranians about the direction of their country, especially an economy marred by skyrocketing prices, stagnant salaries and dwindling job opportunities.
In explaining their vote for Rowhani, many spoke of change. They alluded not to hot-button international issues such as Iran’s contentious nuclear program or its die-hard support of Syrian President Bashar Assad, but to the slumping economy that has been especially unforgiving on the young, among whom the unemployment rate reportedly tops 40%.
“People want a change in the economic situation,” said Saman Hasani, 26, an engineering student who was among many people honking car horns on the streets of Tehran on Saturday evening after the Interior Ministry confirmed Rowhani’s victory. “They want to see some economic growth, less unemployment.”
As Rowhani’s unlikely victory began to sink in Saturday evening, thousands of people congregated on the streets of Tehran, and impromptu celebrations erupted. Security personnel made no move to rein in the festivities.
Jubilant marchers clapped in unison and waved banners in purple, the color of the victor’s campaign. “Long live Rowhani!” they shouted.
As the only perceived moderate in the race, and as the establishment’s least-favorite among the six candidates, Rowhani had a natural appeal for those seeking a new direction after eight years of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, widely seen as a divisive and bombastic figure who alienated many and, according to his critics, badly mismanaged the economy.
Rowhani’s economic prescriptions weren’t especially original: create jobs by bolstering domestic industry and attracting foreign investment. But he linked economic development with an ambitious, albeit somewhat inchoate, project for “reconciliation with the world,” hinting at a global engagement for a nation that has become isolated and shut off from foreign markets.
“I believe solving the economic issue is possible through foreign policy,” he said at one point, a comment that seemed to offer new vistas for a population starved for possibilities.
Rowhani’s reputation has long been that of a slightly conservative but pragmatic cleric with deep roots in the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Far from a firebrand, he has been a mainstay of post-revolutionary Iranian politics. He served for years in the parliament and as the top nuclear negotiator for President Mohammad Khatami, a reformist often stymied by Iran’s entrenched alliance of the clerical elite and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its massive economic tentacles.
The fact that the powerful Guardian Council, which vets candidates, allowed Rowhani to stay on the presidential ballot while barring his mentor, former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, was a sign that he was not seen as a threat to the system.
But Rowhani enthusiastically and unexpectedly embraced the reformist cause, whether out of pure conviction or some measure of political expediency. He took on such incendiary issues as individual rights, gender equality, artistic freedom and censorship.
“I think artists should decide themselves how to handle their professions,” he said at one point, a perilous suggestion in an authoritarian government profoundly paranoid about what its citizens are up to.
Rowhani the cautious centrist seemed to attain an almost overnight charisma, his standing bolstered when the one true reformer in the race dropped out last week in an opposition maneuver to unify forces against a fractured array of hard-line candidates.
Meanwhile, Rowhani’s musings about freedoms and opening up society resonated with important constituencies: the young, women and members of the urban middle class fed up with official slogans and a weekly struggle to pay the bills. He hinted at releasing political prisoners, declaring at one point, “Why should people be in jail just for their ideas?”
His comments were measured and often nonspecific, clearly designed not to confront the leadership but to connect with the disillusioned quiet majority. His religious pedigree — he was the only cleric among the six candidates — probably provided some cover. Final results showed that he ran well in the seminary city of Qom, indicating an affinity with certain religious conservatives.
His chief rivals in the conservative bloc necessarily hewed to a more limited vision that seemed more of the same.
Saeed Jalili, who has been handling the nation’s sensitive nuclear portfolio, spoke of creating a society based on “pure Islam,” a notion popular with militiamen known as basiji but not especially attractive to a burdened middle class. Jalili, once deemed a front-runner because of his close association with the clerical and security elite, finished a disappointing third, garnering only about 11% of the vote, compared with Rowhani’s 50.7% and 16% for the second-place finisher, Tehran Mayor Mohammed Baqer Qalibaf.
In the third and final candidates’ debate, Jalili faced withering criticism from former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati for not having done more to make a deal on the nuclear issue, exposing fissures among Iran’s nuclear policymakers unknown to most citizens. The debates also crystallized for many the extent to which the nation’s economic crisis was linked to international sanctions and the nuclear program, a fact that many officials had played down out of a sense of nationalism.
The president-elect has vowed not to “surrender” to Western demands on the nuclear issue. But his pragmatism, knowledge and negotiating savvy apparently convinced many that he could accomplish something to liberate Iran from the death-grip of ever-escalating sanctions.
“Certain people in this country are proud of themselves for bringing sanctions on us and are proud of themselves for bringing poverty,” Rowhani said last week at a rally in Tehran.
In winning more than half the vote, Rowhani avoided a runoff. Though his election was a surprise, “it wasn’t a surprise that the Iranian people are seeking change,” said Ali Vaez, an Iran analyst for the International Crisis Group. “The surprise is that the change really occurred, that the system allowed Mr. Rowhani to participate and then to tolerate, accept and even celebrate his victory, that what mattered more is change not continuity.”
In Washington, Secretary of State John F. Kerry lauded the “courage” of Iranians who “expressed their desire for a new and better future.”
“We, along with our international partners, remain ready to engage directly with the Iranian government,” Kerry said in a statement. “We hope they will honor their international obligations to the rest of the world in order to reach a diplomatic solution that will fully address the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.”
But what progress Rowhani can possibly make on his grand plans remains to be seen. Foreign policy and nuclear matters are the preserve of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whom the West sees as an inflexible barrier to any kind of deal. But Rowhani and Khamenei are old friends. Rowhani has long been the supreme leader’s appointee on the high-level Supreme National Security Council, which has a major role in defense, intelligence and nuclear policy.
The new president cannot challenge or confront the ultimate authority, but observers say he may be in a position to convince Khamenei that it’s time to shift course on some matters for the good of the country.
“Rowhani is a team player whose policy and approach are based on rationality and moderation,” said Amir Hossain Mottaghi, a political analyst and admirer. “We hope that Rowhani can compensate for eight years of extremism and rhetoric with progress, development and advancement.”
Special correspondent Mostaghim reported from Tehran and Times staff writer McDonnell from Beirut. Times staff writer Neela Banerjee in Washington contributed to this report.