Moderate cleric Hassan Rowhani beats hardliners to be Iran's new president

Moderate cleric beats conservative rivals to become new president, even though hardliners remain largely in control of Iranian politics

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 June, 2013, 6:33am

Hassan Rowhani's election as Iran's new president, backed by both moderates and reformists, gives a shot in the arm to a reform movement long sidelined by regime pressure.

"The slow death of reformists in Iranian politics has been partly halted by this very clear victory for Mr Rowhani," said conservative analyst Amir Mohebian.

Rowhani, a moderate cleric, secured 50.6 per cent with 18.6 million votes - three times ahead of the runner-up, Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf.

He largely owes his victory in Friday's election to the withdrawal of sole reformist candidate Mohammad Reza Aref three days before the vote.

That, and former popular reformist president Mohammad Khatami calling on voters to mobilise behind Rowhani, secured his victory after five conservative opponents who failed to unite.

He was given a further boost after a call to back him by another reformist former president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

"Though hardliners remain in control of key aspects of Iran's political system, the centrists and reformists have proven that even when the cards are stacked against them, they can still prevail due to their support among the population," Dr Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council said.

Since 2009 and the repression of public protests that erupted after the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, reformists have been isolated and subjected to unprecedented pressures. Scores of reformist leaders have been arrested.

Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the two presidential candidates, alleged the result was rigged and urged their supporters to take to the streets. Both have been under house arrest for more than two years.

In recent months, reformists led by Khatami have raised their heads warily above the parapet.

"With Rowhani's victory, there will no longer be pressure against them as long as they choose not to take an extremist stance," said Mohebian.

"The reformists must know that to submit Rowhani, who has always been at the centre of things politically, to excessive demands will destroy opportunities created by this election, as happened under Khatami," who was president between 1997 and 2005, he added.

Near the end of Khatami's term some reformists tried to push him to choose the path of confrontation.

"One of the first demands of reformists could be the release of Mousavi and Karroubi," said a moderate official who did not want to be named.

"This would put Rowhani in a difficult position and create a problem for him in the heart of power."

After Rowhani's election victory was announced late on Saturday, some of the thousands of people gathered in central Tehran called for freedom for Mousavi and Karroubi.

"He will have to neutralise extremists in both the reformist and conservative camps if he wants to avoid problems," said Mohebian.

This could turn out to be a tightrope walk for a new president who must avoid being caught in any crossfire.

"Rowhani will use some reformists who have great expertise, but not those who were involved in the events of 2009," political analyst Mohammad Saleh Sedghian said in Tehran.

"More than the reformists, it will be the former president Rafsanjani who will have great influence in Rowhani's government which will be the one of national unity," he predicted.

That would satisfy Khatami, leader of the reformists.

Last year, he set up a new body dubbed an advisory council, bringing together main reformists as a way of preventing divisions and defining the movement's aims.