Why You Should Pay Attention to the Presidential Election in Iran

Today is Election Day in Iran. It’s a day many in the international community consider hollow, but I believe this election presents opportunities to witness change in Iran.

As reported by The Washington Post on June 11, Israeli officials, among others, are greeting the June 14 election with, “a mixture of resignation and dread.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked the legislative branch of the Israeli government, the Knesset, “that nobody delude himself,” adding, “the results of the election in Iran won’t change a thing.”

Primarily concerned with the development of nuclear weapons, and rightfully so, both the United States and Israel understand that leadership on this issue does not come from the Iran’s president: all answer Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. 

While the Ayatollah is going nowhere, there does seem to be evidence pointing towards the possible changes following the election.  Five months ago, The Chicago Tribune reported on a hand written letter from Iran’s Foreign Minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, to the Supreme Leader, calling for, "broad discussions with the United States."

Khamenei agreed to opening up discussions, however, no progress has been made; in fact, sanctions increased due to what the White House describes as a, “continued failure to meet its international obligations.” While negotiations may be gridlocked, I look to Salehi’s letter and his decision to circumvent current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: clearly his president was an obstacle to negotiations.

The current front runner in this election, centrist Hassan Rowhani, seems to be nothing like Ahmadinejad.

Rowhani, a reformist and former nuclear negotiator under former President Khatami (1997 – 2005), is calling forfreedom of press, equal rights and pay for women, and better relations with the West. During last Friday’s finalpresidential debate, hardliners accused Rowhani of subservience to the West, citing his decision to suspend Iran's uranium enrichment program during Khatami’s presidency – this program resumed with Ahmadinejad’s election in 2005. Rouhani, placing first in the opinion polls with 27.2 percent, responded with a call to, “move away from extremism” and to“maintain the country's interests and national security so as to provide conditions where we create opportunities.”

Rowhani’s ability to increase personal freedoms and positive relations with the West may be just a dream at best. I see Netanyahu’s doubts as completely rational, and even likely, however, I believe this election is worth watching. Tomorrow we will see what kind of future the Iranian people desire; only time will tell if or when that future’s achieved.

As Christians, we do not have the luxury of consigning our future to intractable conflict. We are not called to ignore reality, or adopt vain simplicity, but to accept and pursue our identity as peacemakers. We have the responsibility to study, to watch, and find opportunities to build bridges with the Middle East rather than walls. Rowhani may be one of those opportunities.

-Craig Swandby is a Wheaton College graduate living and working in Washington, DC. He's an advocate for aid, justice, and development among the world's poor, and for peace and justice in the Middle East. Follow @craigswandby