Yesterday, I attended a public forum at Eastern Mennonite University on "The Recent Election of President Rouhani and Implications for US-Iran Relations." The event included presentations from two visiting Iranian scholars: Dr. Amir Akrami and Dr. Sheida Shakouri Rad. Both gave detailed and informative talks that aided in my understanding of current political dynamics in the critical Middle Eastern nation. Akrami started the evening by offering geographical context and then explaining the historical background of the past few decades (the photo is one I took of him). He focused on the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, economic developments in the 1990s (that saw a growing gap between the wealthy and the poor), and the elections and terms of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Akrami explained the feelings of fraud surrounding Ahmadinejad's second election in 2009 (in many cases sent out worldwide with social media) and the growing discontent among many since then. Interestingly, Akrami noted that the perceived fraud led some to question religion and faith since the political leaders in Iran are also religious leaders. Although he did not say it, this seemed to me to be a great reminder why church and state should be separated since otherwise opposition to the government can result in opposition to the church.
With the stage set for the 2013 election, Rad then took over to explain in detail the campaign process, candidates, and election dynamics for the June election. Although U.S. media had presented Rouhani as a much more moderate leader than Ahmadinejad, many reports also suggested that not much would really change in the Iranian political system. However, Rad's presentation brought a more complete picture to the shift. Despite some reformers thinking the election should be boycotted as a result of the disputed 2009 contest and despite political hurdles against them (like candidates being disqualified and historic divisions among reformers), they united behind Rouhani and defeated the conservative candidates hoping to pick up the mantle of Ahmadinejad. Her excitement in the election outcome could be seen on her face as she spoke. After Rad spoke, Akrami returned for some concluding comments. He argued that Rouhani's election should be viewed by the U.S. as a positive opportunity for better relations. He added, however, that a military strike on Syria would instead set relations back. He echoed comments made by Rad that sanctions against Iran are hurting the people and could help the hardliners if the sanctions continue. I left the event with much more knowledge about Iranian politics and greater optimism about Rouhani. Hopefully his election brings more dialogue between the U.S. and Iran.