Surprise victory for reformer in Iran election

Man of God: A poster of Ayatollah Khomeini, who created Iran’s religious constitution © Getty Images

An Islamic cleric has won a surprise victory in Iran’s presidential election, taking over from hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Could religious rule turn out to be the best path to peace?

The streets of Tehran, capital of the Islamic Republic of Iran, are full of rejoicing. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – a hardliner who brutally suppressed reformers and brought relations between Iran and the West to a dramatic new low – is no longer the country’s president.

Better yet, his replacement Hassan Rouhani, voted in this weekend by a huge and unexpected margin, is widely regarded as a moderate and a reformer. His campaign promised a new era of ‘rationality and moderation’, pardons for imprisoned opposition leaders and a new willingness to compromise with the West over Iran’s controversial nuclear programme.

So far, the consensus among analysts is that there really is reason to celebrate. Iran is a huge, once-prosperous country with a rich cultural inheritance and a key strategic position in the Middle East. A wiser Iranian government could do a huge amount of good for Iran’s long-suffering citizens and for the wider world.

But the nature of Iran’s political system means there is more to this story than meets the eye. Since the revolution of 1979, Iran has been an Islamic Republic. It has an elected president, just like France or the USA – this is the role that Hassan Rouhani now occupies. Above the president, however, is a council of 12 senior Islamic clerics, led by the ‘supreme leader’, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

This religious ‘Guardian Council’ holds supreme constitutional power in Iran, and can have a huge influence on who becomes president. But things are not so simple in practice. Former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had grown increasingly defiant in his relations with Ayatollah Khamenei. He questioned the power of Iran’s clerics and tried to shrink the enormous wealth of religious institutions. Instead of an Islamic Republic, Ahmadinejad favoured a nationalist republic, inspired by the history and traditions of ancient Persia rather than by the laws of Islam.

But Ahmadinejad has gone, and the Guardian Council prevented his closest political allies from even running for power. Ayatollah Khamenei may not like Rouhani’s reformist tendencies, but the new president does have one thing going for him: unlike Ahmadinejad, Rouhani is himself an Islamic cleric.

God and power

Many analysts will say ‘so what?’ Who cares whether Rouhani is a cleric or not, so long as he takes Iran in the right direction?

But there are some who fear that religious rule in Iran will prove to be a dead end. So long as the Ayatollah and his allies remain in power, they argue, the country will never be truly free.

You Decide

  1. Would you feel comfortable if a religious figure like a priest or an imam was elected to run your country?
  2. Religion looks to higher authorities. Democracy gives power to the people. Can the two prosper at the same time?


  1. What career do you think would be the best preparation for a future president? For example: would you rather be led by a former dentist or a former demolitions expert? Write down your top three and your bottom three, then compare results with others in the class.
  2. Iran is one of the oldest and most important countries in the world. Choose one event from any time in Iranian or Persian history, then prepare and write an essay explaining why that event changed the world.

Some People Say...

“God doesn’t care about politics.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Is this just an Iranian problem?
Not at all. The relationship between religion and power is a vital and hotly debated issue all over the Middle East. In Egypt, a religious party took over the country after the Arab Spring uprising. In Turkey, a religious party in power is now being challenged by secular protests.
Okay, but it is just a Middle Eastern problem right?
Not exactly. In the USA, the constitution guarantees the separation of Church and State – but the dividing line is often bitterly contested. For example, in some areas, parents want ‘Intelligent Design’ (the idea that God created the Earth in its current form) taught in schools alongside scientific ideas of evolution. Opponents say this is the same as teaching religion – a violation of church-state boundaries.

Word Watch

Iran and the West
Relations between Iran and the West are extremely poor. Iran is widely suspected of wanting to build a nuclear missile, defying international treaties. Western leaders fear that such a weapon could be used against Israel, or delivered to terrorists and used to attack the West. Iran insists its nuclear programme is only for peaceful purposes.
Key strategic position
Iran is well placed to involve itself in conflicts in Afghanistan, to the east and Iraq and Syria to the west. It is a key supporter of the Assad regime in Syria and has a huge power base in Iraq. It also has a substantial naval presence in the Persian Gulf, a vital oil trade route.
‘Ayatollah’ is a title given to top ranking clerics in Shia Islam. The word became famous in the West after the 1979 Iranian revolution, led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who overthrew the corrupt regime of the Shah – a secular dictator backed by the Western powers.
Ancient Persia
The modern state of Iran covers the ancient heartland of the Persian Empire, which ruled the Middle East for a thousand years. Persians created one of the greatest civilisations of the ancient world – wealthy, sophisticated, devastating in battle. The empire collapsed when Muslim Arabs invaded in the 600s AD, but has retained its unique Persian character ever since.

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