By John Lyons
June 17, 2013
DESPITE the best efforts of the ayatollahs, Iranians have sent a resounding message to their religious leaders: we want change.
Hassan Rowhani's stunning victory in Iran's presidential election says many things about the country whose decisions could well determine whether or not there is a nuclear war in the Middle East.
The most powerful message is that Iranians - successors of the great Persian culture - want to end their isolation and re-engage with the world.
This may not be the preferred course of the most powerful man in the country, the hard-line Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, but it is clearly the view of the majority of those who voted at the weekend.
Even within a highly vetted election process, the ayatollahs - bearded old men dressed in black who never have to face the verdict of the people - have been told the majority of the country does not want the status quo.
Rowhani, a moderate reformer, has made history. This 64-year-old cleric won 51 per cent of the vote in a first-round knockout - emphatically disposing of the five more conservative candidates pitted against him.
He was the candidate intended to give the process some credibility - the one centrist candidate who gave the election a hint of legitimacy. But few thought he would win.
After quietly making it past Khamenei's Guardian Council, Rowhani ran a brilliant campaign. He immediately burst on to the scene as an agent of change: he promised to release political prisoners, work towards freedom of the press and support equal rights and pay for women.
But it was Iran's nuclear program - the holy grail of Ayatollah Khamenei - where Rowhani took on Tehran's political establishment.
A nuclear negotiator between 2003 and 2005 and regarded by the West as flexible, Rowhani used his rallies to make a frontal assault on Saeed Jalili, Iran's current nuclear negotiator and the candidate believed to have been the preference of Khamenei.
Rowhani said that Iran, which by implication meant Khamenei and Jalili, had mishandled its nuclear program, leading to sanctions that were crippling the country's economy.
"We won't let the past eight years be continued," he told one rally. "They brought sanctions to the country. Yet they are proud of it.
"I'll pursue a policy of reconciliation and peace. We will also reconcile with the world."
The election result will not suddenly bring democracy or engagement to Iran. But just as the election of Jalili would have strengthened Khamenei, the election of Rowhani entrenches a formidable internal opponent.
Yes, Iranians had a taste of democracy at the weekend and clearly enjoyed it, but 34 years of ruthlessly enforced Sharia law will not suddenly make way for freedom.
Iran is a place where people are very careful about what they say for fear of drawing the attention of the secret police. Yet it is clear these past few days that the ayatollahs have learnt a lesson from 2009, when the country descended into violence after millions believed the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was rigged.
I watched in the streets of Tehran four years ago as Khamenei used the full weight of his security forces to shoot, bash and apprehend people. He literally blasted them off the streets.
This time, neither the Supreme Leader nor the middle class - a group growing in number and discontent - wanted bloodshed.
One thing I learned during that crackdown was an intriguing barometer of the political position of protesters - how far back women pushed their scarves.
The "Islamic police" insist that women show no hair. In 2009, when millions took to the streets to protest against the Ahmadinejad re-election, women used the protection of large crowds to push back their scarves. They became a key part of the "Green Revolution" - those who believed not only that Ahmadinejad had been defeated by reformist candidate Mir Hussein Mousavi, but who wanted a democratic rather than Islamic society.
One young woman told me she didn't want to live under "Islamic fascism"; one young man told me that he was a Muslim because his father had been one, but that this didn't mean he wanted "a Muslim government".
"I just want a normal government," he said. But as the regime used violence to crush the dissent, the scarves came further and further forward again as people fled the streets in fear and women did not want to draw attention to themselves.
The tell-tale sign has made its reappearance with the rise of Hassan Rowhani: at both his election rallies and celebrations after his victory Iranian women have again pushed back their scarves.
In Iran, freedom comes only centimeter by centimeter. Khamenei remains the most powerful man in the country by far. He controls the all-powerful Revolutionary Guard, which includes the elite army units, the Islamic police and the ruthless plain-clothes Basiji militia (secret police), the last people you want knocking on your door at two in the morning.
Khamenei and his fellow ayatollahs want the 75 million people of the Islamic Republic of Iran to live under Sharia law. But the demographic make-up of the country, along with the modern world, is working against them.
Iran is both a young population and a highly educated one. More than 70 per cent of Iranians were not born when the ayatollahs seized power amid the chaos of the fall of the shah in 1979. Iranians had risen up against the brutality of the shah but did not plan what would happen next. The ayatollahs were the best organised and most determined - they rushed into the power vacuum.
Suddenly, one of the richest and most interesting cultures in the world fell under the straitjacket of Sharia law. Since then, only two men have run the country - Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who took over when the shah fell, and Ayatollah Khamenei, who assumed the leadership when Khomeini died.
Khomeini was ruthless in his enforcement of Islamic law as he saw it - he declared a "fatwa" against Salman Rushdie after the publication of his book The Satanic Verses.
He also set up a brutal system of secret police - to rival that used by the shah - of which Khomeini himself had been a victim.
But the modern world is not favouring the religious leaders - the ayatollahs are now running interference against modern technology and the freedom provided by the internet.
The young people who swept behind the Green Revolution of Mousavi four years ago and now have embraced the Purple Revolution of Rowhani watch the world on their computers and want part of the action.
Khamenei, 73, never travels outside Iran. Daily life in Iran has involved fear that your neighbour or work colleague may inform on you as "an enemy of the Islamic revolution". I saw this reality when I got on to a bus in Tehran in 2009. I was with a British woman who spoke fluent Farsi and lectured at universities in Iran. As is required, I got on to the bus through the front door and she through the back. We met in the middle of the crowded bus where a metal bar separates men from women.
We resumed our conversation until an old woman sitting near us brusquely said something to the British woman. The whole bus went silent.
The old woman demanded to know why a man and a woman were talking in public - were we married? The British woman, wanting to avoid a run-in with the authorities, said we were. The old woman backed off.
The British woman had had plenty of experience with the authorities. On one occasion two Islamic police - both women - walked next to her in the street and, in Farsi, demanded she wipe off her lipstick. The British woman pretended she didn't understand and kept on walking. Women in Iran live under such constant harassment.
A key factor in Rowhani's victory involves Ali Akbar Rafsanjani. Rafsanjani is a former president of Iran. He also has immense power. Unlike many of the regime's critics, who have been imprisoned, Rafsanjani is untouchable due to the fact he is a former president. Being a billionaire also helps.
Rowhani's victory is Rafsanjani's Revenge. He wanted to run in this election and probably would have won had he been allowed to.
But Khamenei, whose Guardian Council vetted the 678 candidates who applied to run and chose only those acceptable to the regime, did not want Rafsanjani anywhere near the presidency.
So he threw his support behind Rowhani.
But Hassan Rowhani is no Mir Hussein Mousavi. Mousavi was a charismatic man who, having been a hard-line member of the regime turned and challenged the regime's human rights record.
Mousavi's attitude to women, in particular, was way too radical for the ayatollahs - not only did he allow his wife Zahra, a respected scholar, to appear in public with him, but she even spoke - something just not done in Iran. She also openly criticised Ahmadinejad over his treatment of women.
Despite 30 women asking to contest the weekend's election, all were banned.
Rowhani is not regarded to be as radical as Mousavi, who was placed under house arrest after the 2009 election.
The most significant aspect of Rowhani's win is that he is likely to try to take the hostility out of Iran's attitude to the international community over the nuclear program.
Jalili would have continued, if not hardened, Iran's hostility to the West.
Rowhani will try to open the way for a more civilised dialogue and, more importantly, push for international inspectors to be allowed to visit the program.
The nuclear program worries many Iranians. During my time in Iran I heard repeatedly from people that they realised that the leadership's insistence on pushing ahead with the program could lead to a war with Israel, but felt powerless to stop it.
In Iran, colours are important. Mousavi became associated with green. Rowhani has taken purple as his colour. The ayatollahs, of course, only ever wear black.
The weekend result has shown that for Iranians purple may not be as good as green - but it's a lot better than black.