The election of Muslim cleric Dr. Hassan Rohani to the presidency of Iran, overpowering candidates who were among the darlings of the religious-political and military establishment in the country, is being viewed in Iran as a historic sensation that will usher in a new era. I have news for you, Iran: It won't.
When Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei forbade the leaders of the Green Movement from running in the election, the number of candidates plummeted. In the 2009 elections, there were about 1,070 candidates, whereas in the current elections there were only 700. It was enough to see the media coverage of the candidates who did seek to "live the dream" and be elected president to understand that the Iranian public views this game of politics as utterly ridiculous.
The low number of candidates on the one hand, and the rumors that the Green Movement would boycott the election altogether on the other, spurred concerns of a low voter turnout. Khamenei feared that a low voter turnout would put the character of the Iranian leadership into question and reflect a lack of public faith in the political system (not that there is too much public faith in the political system to speak of). In the absence of faith, a supreme leader must look for other avenues.
Khamenei was well aware of this problem, and even though he probably would have preferred to have seen Saeed Jalili or Mohammed Baqer Qalibaf in the presidential seat, he, together with his council of experts, allowed a cleric, who doesn't belong to the Green Movement but is viewed as a moderate, to run in the election, and even to be elected. The large number of voters who showed up at the polls, and who voted for Rohani, raised a satisfied smile on Khamenei's face -- he saw it as a showing of public faith in the political system and in the rule of a Muslim cleric. After all, the very essence of the Islamic Republic is the rule of one cleric hailing from the same line as the founder of the republic -- Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
The entry of a Muslim cleric who is also seen as a moderate to the presidential post takes Iran back to the good old days when its presidents were religious leaders -- Mohammad Ali Rajai, Khamenei, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami. Rohani is joining a long line, but beyond that, he is also an expert on literature and has written many papers about the importance of the Islamic Revolution, its character and the challenges posed by the new Shiite reality in the world.
The new president, a spiritual leader himself, is not about to make any significant reforms in the character of the Iranian regime, human rights, the nuclear issue or Iran's attitude toward Israel. He will continue to sign the checks that fund Hezbollah and Syria and continue pressing forward with the nuclear agenda. As one of the founders of the Islamic Revolution, and as a loyalist to Khomeini and his associates, let us not expect of Rohani anything that we would not expect of Khamenei himself, or Khomeini for that matter.
And one last thing about outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his influence on Rohani's presidential victory: Even though no one in the West could ever stand Ahmadinejad (to say the least), nor did many within Iran either, he is currently perceived in Iran as one of the most revered presidents in the history of the Islamic republic. It is not because of the sanctions his country endured during his term, and not thanks to his Holocaust denials and desire to annihilate Israel, or even because of the nuclear pursuit; it is mainly because of his actions against the office of the spiritual leader and his efforts to diminish Khamenei's powers. The new president -- a moderate cleric -- poses a similar challenge to the office of the supreme leader, and that is what brought the masses out to vote in the last election.
Dr. Ronen A. Cohen is a lecturer in the Middle Eastern and Israel Studies Department at Ariel University.