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Minorities hopeful after Iran elects moderate President

21 June 2013


Celebrations: supporters of Hassan Rowhani take to the streets in Tehran after he won the election on Saturday

Celebrations: supporters of Hassan Rowhani take to the streets in Tehran after he won the election on Saturday

THE tiny Christian community in Iran, and other minorities in the country, "have reason to feel cautiously optimistic about the future" after the outright victory of the lone moderate candidate Hassan Rowhani, in the first round of last Friday's presidential election, a European diplomat in Tehran said.

"Put it this way," he continued, "the plight of religious minorities is certainly not going to get worse, and the strong likelihood is that under Rowhani things will gradually improve."

The new Iranian leader, who crucially had the backing of two important reformers - the former Presidents Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami - won just over 50 per cent of votes, defeating three hardline candidates.

During the campaign, Mr Rowhani, who is 65, and is well regarded by politicians and diplomats in the West, promised to take steps to improve human rights in general by drawing up a charter to guarantee personal freedoms, including sex equality; freedom for political prisoners; and the removal of restrictions on the media.

While ultimate power still rests with the country's supreme spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the latter enjoys a good relationship with the newly appointed President, and the hardline Guardian's Council did not vet his candidature as it did those of Mr Rafsanjani and Mr Khatami. "Rowhani can appoint technocrats and like-minded figures to top government posts," the Tehran-based diplomat said. "This will make a difference."

Mr Rowhani, a former nuclear negotiator with the West, who reached a deal with European countries a decade ago which was subsequently rejected by the Tehran leadership, has promised a new era of international co-operation. Although this does not automatically mean an end to the Iran nuclear crisis, the new President will be in a strong position to convince Ayatollah Khamenei that it would be in the country's best interests to take a less confrontational tone in future nuclear negotiations with world powers.

In any event, Iran will look and sound like a very different country from the one presided over by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad since 2005. An Iran expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, Suzanne Maloney, told the daily newspaper The National, in Abu Dhabi, that Mr Rowhani's victory suggested "a shift of historic proportions". She described him as an ideal candidate "to spearhead a new initiative to wrest Iran from its debilitating battle with the international community over the nuclear issue".

Until the last few days of the campaign, when the millions of Iranians seeking reform threw their weight behind Mr Rowhani, the assumption had been that one of the hardline candidates, probably the Mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, would be the victor. But he won only 15.6 per cent of the vote.

"The conservatives' mistake was to field three candidates rather than a single one," the diplomat said. "Even though the reformists have been in the shadows for the past few years, they saw an opportunity in Rowhani's candidature, and grabbed it."

Unlike the previous presidential elections, in 2009, the latest polling passed off peacefully. Not only was this election regarded as free and fair, but the result meant that those sections of Iranian society who were angered by Mr Ahmadinejad's flawed victory, and took to the streets to protest, are today celebrating Mr Rowhani's success.

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