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Will Hassan Rowhani change Iran's equations with the world?

By Arfa Khanum Sherwani
June 20, 2013 15:10 IST
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Iran President Hassan RouhaniWhile one is not anticipating a sea change in Iranian politics, in Hassan Rowhani, Iran may have found a President who will, at the very least, be less verbally aggressive than the outgoing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. There is a strong possibility that he will work towards changing Iran's relations with the world, says Arfa Khanum Sherwani.

“We would all like to vote for the best man but he is never a candidate,” the American cartoonist Kin Hubbard once said. But a lot of Iranians will disagree with him today. Hordes of Iranians were seen on the streets of Tehran to celebrate the victory of moderate cleric Hassan Rowhani, who quite sensationally received enough votes to be the next President of the Islamic republic. The presidential election results in Iran have taken almost everyone by surprise. Most western experts were predicting the victory of hardliner Saeed Jalili who is also Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator.

As the Islamic Republic of Iran elected its next President, the world watched with caution and incredulity. While the ultimate power of making decisions remains with Ayatullah Ali Khamnei, the highest authority, the President follows a close second.

The geopolitical significance of Iran -- which is not just restricted to the middle-east but much of the western world -- makes it a sought after affair in world politics. While the last election in 2009 had a clear contest between a conservative Mahmood Ahmadinejad and a reformist Mir Hossein Mousavi, this time it was about five conservatives and one reformist.

It might sound astounding, but in last four years, the issues have not changed much. Iranian elections still revolved around foreign policy, the nuclear issue, US sanctions and a cataclysmic economy. Issues like civil liberty, women empowerment and status of its minority population took a backseat.

Perhaps, the women of no other country have been the subject of discussion as much as the women of Iran.  But for a bit if we shift the focus from politics and look at the Iranian society closely, the women appear to participate almost on an equal footing in the social life of the country. The moment you land at the Imam Khomeini International Airport, the very first sight of women officers on the immigration counter will change your perception of Iranian women. And it does not stop here.

The local bazaars are full of well-dressed women shopkeepers luring the potential buyers. The number of women going to Iranian colleges is more than the men and it becomes even stronger when it comes to the strength of women in offices. However there are separate compartments for women in local trains and separate buses running for them, the sheer number of women taking public transport or driving their cars to work makes it look like humdrum of everyday life in almost any other country.

Though the most emblematic thing about Iranian women might be the mandatory head-scarf, it should not take away the credit from the Iranian society which treats them almost as equals.

The way Iran’s political leadership projects itself in front of the world, it appears to be a society which is rigid, conservative and disconnected from the wave of globalisation. But Iran on the ground is a young and educated country with 70 percent of its population under the age of 30 and a striking 85 percent literacy rate.

The young and impatient Iranians are fiercely independent too. Though the political scenario of their nation may be failing them at times but when it comes to making personal choices, they listen to no one but just their heart.

Drenched in hues of love, young couples can be seen hand-in-hand in community parks and local bazaars. Most of the love stories start during college and majority of them are married off even before finishing college. The average age of marriage in Iranians is between 19 -24 years. We, in India, may still be discussing whether or not to introduce sex education to students, but Iran is practicing it for quite a long time. There is a separate family planning department which gives formal training to people before they tie the knot. 

The question arises why people with such modernistic views and way of life choose a traditionalist like Ahmadinejad as their leader. The devil is in the detail. The rural population as well as those who have crossed 35 years of age find themselves closer to the ideology of the 1979 Islamic revolution than the urban young population. Most of the young generation has opened their eyes in the post-revolution period and can hardly associate themselves with the revolution and the associated struggle. Moreover at the very outset of the post-revolutionary era, revolutionary ideologues perceived the rural people as true mostazafin (downtrodden) and marked them on their priorities. The welfare schemes for them continue to the date.

So it’s no mystery why the rural population would want to see the conservatives in power. Frequent military threats from the west also serve as catalyst to unite the country and elect someone who is not ‘tilted’ towards the west and has the mettle to save the ‘honour and pride’ of the Islamic state.

Though if what happened in the aftermath of 2009 elections is any testimony, the Iranians, like citizens of any other country, as much crave for a free society, free speech and a life which they can call their own.

A reflection of which was seen by the way they rallied behind their reformist candidate before the election and even after he was declared defeated. Its difficult to forget the images of how the low profile but highly educated and technologically savvy Iranian young generation showed the world a street-level view of the abysmal dissent which may have been simmering for years.

Four years on, Mir Hossein Mousavi, the thwarted reformists' favourite who claimed to have won the 2009 elections, remain under house arrest, along with a fellow candidate Mehdi Karroubi. This was the price they paid for wanting to breathe freely.

And it seems that this sanguinity has been finally rewarded. While one is not anticipating a sea change in Iranian politics, in Rowhani, Iran may have found a President who will, at the very least, be less verbally aggressive than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the outgoing leader. There is a strong possibility that he will work towards changing Iran's relations with the world.

Sooner than later Iran will have to understand that globalisation is increasingly making the borders irrelevant between the countries. And the way Iranian youth have burst onto the geopolitical stage, future of Iranians might just be in their hands.   

Arfa Khanum Sherwani is a senior anchor with Rajya Sabha TV. She had covered 2009 presidential elections from Tehran.  

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