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I find the results of the recent Presidential election in Iran heartening. I do not mean to say that I am convinced that Hassan Rouhani will abandon Ayatollah Khamenei’s quest to turn the Islamic Republic into a nuclear power. Nor do I mean that he will bring to an end the petty and not so petty tyranny of the mullahs and usher in genuinely free elections. I have no idea what he will do. He was among a group of candidates handpicked by Khamenei, and he may take direction from the old theocrat. Then, again, he may take seriously the promises he has made — if for no other reason than that he was the one who made them.
What I find heartening is that there were contested elections, that the issues were actually debated, and that the Iranian people opted to choose by a landslide — more than 50% of the vote in a race involving a host of contenders — the man that echoed the thinking voiced in June 2009, in the last election by the candidates who promised reform.
What I have in mind is this. The Islamic Republic of Iran is a mixed regime. It gives lip service and more than lip service to two principles — the rule of God’s chosen representative on earth, and popular sovereignty. Those two principles are at odds with one another, and for the most part it has been the case that the theocrats rule. But the holding of elections, the fact that they are contested, and the fact that time and again one of the candidates chooses to differentiate himself from his rivals by proposing, in effect, that the revolution be set aside and Iran become a normal country — this means that every so often the Iranian people are reminded that, in the final analysis, the country belongs to them.
One of the two principles will emerge victorious in the end. The holding of contested elections with serious debates virtually guarantees that the day will come when no one defers to the mullahs. It is in the nature of things that Hassan Rouhani will want to make his mark. He has been elected President; he has a mandate for action; and, if he has any self-respect, he will make the attempt. He may, of course, be a man without self-regard. He may be servile to the tips of his toes. He may knuckle under. But there will come a time when he has a successor who does not fit that bill — and then, suddenly, when no one expects it, the theocratic structure will collapse like a house of cards. Such a development is baked in the cake. It is inherent in the constitution of the Islamic Republic that, as a theocracy, it cannot last.