No surprise in Iran

Those who hoped that the reformists might again be able to pull something out of the hat in Iran were disappointed. Hardliner Ebrahim Raisi won the presidency on the first round, exactly as expected, winning 62% of the vote against three opponents. (See my preview here.)

The (at least relatively speaking) moderate candidate, Abdolnaser Hemmati, could manage only third place, with 8.4% (I’m using Wikipedia’s figures, which are consistent with the media reports). Turnout was 48%, a record low, and some four million of those apparently voted informal.

Some countries would be quite happy with a 48% turnout; in France’s regional elections, held yesterday (which we’ll talk about later in the week), it was below 35%. But authoritarian regimes put great stock in turnout, and the fact that more than half the voters stayed away is a powerful sign of public discontent. Whether or not Raisi will pay any heed remains to be seen.

The usual suspects took Raisi’s victory as a cue to argue against any sort of engagement with Iran. Their arguments might have more weight if they had not repeatedly, and with considerable success, tried to undermine efforts to deal with past reformist leaders, thereby depriving them of achievement and leaving them at the mercy of the hardliners. Donald Trump’s snubbing of Hassan Rouhani was a direct echo of the way George Bush Jr had treated Mohammad Khatami in the previous decade.

The anti-Iran lobby would also have somewhat more credibility if was not also the advocate of alliance with Saudi Arabia, which on the score of democracy and human rights is a much greater offender than Iran.

Certainly no-one should try to whitewash the nature of the Iranian regime, of which Raisi is a particularly nasty representative. But that doesn’t change the fact that Iran and the west have a mutual interest in not blowing each other up, and that negotiations to that end are sensible and necessary. It’s even possible that with Iran now speaking with one voice they will take place more productively.

Neither voting nor protests have so far enabled Iranians to throw off theocratic control, and the carnage in nearby Syria serves as a warning against the resort to armed insurrection. Most probably, political change will have to wait on the death or retirement of supreme leader Ali Khamenei.

But that’s no reason not to use diplomacy to try to make the region a safer place in the meantime.

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