The wave of optimism coming out of Iran after Hassan Rowhani’s landslide victory in a tightly controlled presidential election is both heartening and understandable. The consolidation of reform-oriented voters behind the candidacy of the least of available evils sends a pretty unmistakable signal for the direction popular sentiment supports, and it’s hard to imagine Rowhani not being an improvement over the feckless demagogue Mahmoud Amadinejad, who is apparently in danger of facing criminal changes even before he leaves office in August.
But while restive Iranians tired of economic calamity and international brinkmanship are entitled to feel very good about this turn of events, outsiders should beware the natural tendency to misinterpret an authoritarian regime’s change of tactics for an impending revolution. Remember Yuri Andropov, the successor to Brezhnev whose ascension to the leadership of the Kremlin briefly and prematurely fed hopes of major changes in the USSR because of the former KGB chief’s alleged taste for Scotch whisky and other accoutrements of Western culture?
When the real deal came along a few years later, some observers were skeptical that Mikhail Gorbachev represented anything other than another false spring in the Kremlin. While Iran is a very different beast from the USSR in its declining years, it requires of westerners a similar suspension of easy analogies. Given Iran’s heavy influence on U.S. policy in the Greater Middle East, particularly now that President Obama has called for more significant intervention in the Syrian civil war against Iran’s friend Bashar al-Assad, keeping Rowhani real–not a symbol of this or that, or a cartoon character, or an object of wish fulfillment–will be important.