Washington shouldn't fool itself that the unexpected victory of Hassan Rowhani in Iran's presidential election last week justifies optimism about nuclear negotiations. Rowhani may be a moderate in Iran's peculiar political lexicon, but he has neither the power nor, judging by his own statements, the inclination to compromise with the West on Tehran's nuclear program. Nevertheless, the result of the June 14 election reflects the resiliency of Iranians' democratic aspirations and should lead to greater emphasis on democracy in American policy.
Prior to the June 14 polls, many planned to boycott. They had good reasons to withhold their participation. Many candidates were barred from running by the Guardian Council and others affiliated with the Green Movement remain under house arrest. Memories of the June 2009 electoral fraud that kept Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in power and the awful silence of the Obama administration after demonstrations broke out provided further disincentive.
Voters who elected Rowhani were under no illusions. "Bad and worse" was the choice Iranian voters faced, according to Golnaz Esfandiari of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Rowhani won, in part, due to perceptions of his desire to reduce Iran's isolation over the nuclear issue and, therefore, the economic damage from international sanctions. During the campaign, Rowhani also appeared to support the release of political prisoners and to distance himself from religious "extremism."
A higher turn out, Iranian voters concluded, would make it harder for the Interior Ministry to rig the vote, further compromising an already limited exercise in democracy. In the end, Rowhani's victory, with a turn out of over 70 percent, gave a boost to those seeking political reform – even if Rowhani himself is not a reformist.
Iranian voters' choice should not lead American officials to project onto Rowhani views and powers he does not hold. This has been a perennial problem in formulating policy toward China. The ascension of communist party general secretary Xi Jinping has once again created hopes, but no evidence, that a new generation of leaders will take a different view of major issues from Tibet to Taiwan to political reform.
In Iran, as in China, power is wielded through institutions and practices not comparable to those of Western democracies. Focusing too much on Rowhani would neglect the role of Iran's people in political change. There too, China provides perspective. Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize Winner, argues the origins of China's significant but now moribund political reforms of the 1980s originated in pressure "from the bottom up," rather than internal Communist Party debates.
The Obama administration may be coming to this view. A few weeks before the election, the Obama administration eased restrictions on communications technologies, including laptops and smartphones, to Iranian citizens, and imposed sanctions on dozens of Iranian officials responsible for human rights violations, including Internet censorship.
Perhaps in preparation for a predicted conservative victor in the Iranian election, the Obama administration began to see a democratic Iran as essential factor in ending Iran's nuclear threat, ending Iranian support for terrorism abroad and Syria's president Bashar Assad? If so, an unexpected result of last week's election should not divert Washington from that approach. The real problem America faces with Iran is not its drive toward nuclear weapons but the kind of government that controls them.
Ellen Bork is the director of Democracy and Human Rights at the Foreign Policy Initiative.