Four years ago, after the dubious reelection of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian streets were filled with protestors demanding to know what had happened to their votes. This weekend, the voters finally got their answer—and, once more, they filled the country’s streets. This time, though, they were celebrating as the government confirmed that Hassan Rouhani, the presidential candidate who had campaigned on promises of reform and reopening to the world, had won an overwhelming victory.

The election of Rouhani, a centrist cleric who has been close to Iran’s apex of power since the 1979 revolution, is an improbably auspicious end to the Ahmadinejad era. Rouhani is a blunt pragmatist with plenty of experience maneuvering within Iran’s theocratic system. He is far too sensible to indulge in a power grab à la Ahmadinejad. And, as a cleric, he assuages the fears of the Islamic Republic’s religious class. He embraced reformist rhetoric during the campaign, but will not deviate too far from the system’s principles, the foremost of which is the primacy of the Supreme Leader. Meanwhile, Rouhani’s focus on the economic costs of Ahmadinejad’s mismanagement resonates with the regime’s traditionalists as well as with a population battered by a decade of intensifying hardship and repression. All in all, the new president might benefit from a broader base of support than any in Iran’s post-revolutionary history, which will be an important asset as he seeks to navigate the country out of isolation and economic crisis.

Going into the election, a Rouhani victory seemed unlikely. The conservatives’ favored candidate was said to be Saeed Jalili, a pious and prim bureaucrat who was appointed as lead nuclear negotiator six years ago. Jalili’s chief qualifications for the post were his status as a “living martyr” (he lost a leg in the war with Iraq), his discolored forehead (from dutiful prayer), and his cultivation of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei over the past ten years. It is easy to understand why Jalili was seen as leading the pack; he is basically an improved version of Ahmadinejad, a younger generation hard-liner who boasts total commitment to the ideals of the revolution but who, given his limited national profile, would be perfectly subservient to Khamenei.

By contrast, Rouhani initially drummed up minimal excitement within Iran and even less attention outside the country, despite the implicit imprimatur of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran's foremost power broker. Because the clergy is so unpopular in Iran at the moment, and because the hard-liners disparaged Rouhani’s track record on the nuclear issue almost non-stop, his prospects seemed dim. Further, in the unlikely event that his campaign did gain steam, it seemed, hard-liners would have no qualms about doing whatever it took to neutralize a potential threat.

In retrospect, though, it is easy to see that Rouhani had a number of things going for him. First, his campaign was sharper than many gave it credit for. He pushed against the regime’s red lines, for example, by promising to release political prisoners. And, in a clear reference to Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, two reformist candidates who were detained after the 2009 vote, he said that he would free all those who remain under house arrest as well. Rouhani sparred heatedly with Jalili’s campaign chief and bypassed state media by releasing a compelling video that highlighted his experience during the war with Iraq (he was on the Supreme Defense Council, was a member of the High Council for Supporting War, and was commander of the Iran Air Defense Force, among other roles) and on nuclear negotiations (he was Iran’s top nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005). His aggressive campaign caught the attention of a disaffected Iranian population, who eventually began to throng his rallies.

Rouhani also benefitted from an unprecedented alliance between Iran’s embattled reform movement and the center-right faction to which Rouhani, as well as Rafsanjani, are generally understood to belong. The division between the two factions dates back to the earliest years of the revolution. It became more entrenched after the reformists gained power in 1997, when Mohammad Khatami, the reformist standard-bearer, was elected president in a major upset. By joining with the center-right now, the reformists got a path out of the political desert in which they have languished since the end of Khatami’s presidency. By joining with the reformists, Rouhani got a powerful get-out-the-vote effort and the withdrawal from the race of Mohammad Reza Aref, the sole approved reformist candidate. By contrast, the conservative camp remained divided, never coalescing around a single candidate. Had it managed to do so, it could have at least forced the election into a run-off.

Of course, Rouhani’s most powerful advantage was the bitter unhappiness of the Iranian people, who have witnessed the implosion of their currency, the return of austerity measures not seen since the Iran-Iraq War, and the erosion of their basic rights and freedoms over the past eight years. The fact that they were willing to hope again, even after the crushing disappointment of 2009 election, underscores a remarkable commitment to peaceful change and to democratic institutions.

All this might explain the massive turnout on election day and Rouhani’s overwhelming popular victory. It does not explain, though, why Khamenei avoided the chicanery that plagued the 2009 vote and why he let the result stand.

One explanation is that the Ayatollah simply miscalculated and found himself, once again, overtaken by events when Rouhani’s candidacy surged with little forewarning. Indeed, it is likely that Khamenei really did expect Iranians to vote for the conservatives. After all, the conservatives have held all the cards in Iran since 2005; they dominate its institutions and dictate the terms of the debate. With the leading reformists imprisoned or in exile, no one expected that the forces of change could be revived so powerfully. When his expectations proved off base last Friday, Khamenei could have simply opted not to risk a repeat of 2009.

There is another possibility, however, and one that better explains Khamenei’s strangely permissive attitude toward Rouhani’s edgy campaign and toward the extraordinary debate that took place between the eight remaining presidential candidates on state television only a week before the election. In that discussion, an exchange about general foreign policy issues morphed unexpectedly into a mutiny on the nuclear issue. One candidate, Ali Akbar Velayati, a scion of the regime’s conservative base, attacked Jalili for failing to strike a nuclear deal and for permitting U.S.-backed sanctions on Iran to increase.

The amazingly candid discussion that followed Velayati’s charge betrayed the Iranian establishment's awareness of the regime's increasing vulnerability. It could only be understood as an intervention—one initiated by the regime's most stalwart supporters and intended to rescue the system by acknowledging its precarious straits and appealing for pragmatism (rather than Jalili’s dogmatism). The discussion was also an acknowledgement that the sanctions-induced miseries of the Iranian public can no longer be soothed with nuclear pageantry or even appeals to religious nationalism.

It is therefore possible to imagine that Khamenei’s unexpected munificence, including his last-minute appeal for every Iranian—even those who don’t support the Islamic Republic—to vote, was planned. In this case, those who see Rouhani’s election as a replay of the shocking political upset that Khatami pulled off in 1997 are off base. Instead, Rouhani’s election is an echo of Khamenei’s sudden shift in 1988 and 1989, when he charged Rafsanjani, a pragmatist, with ending the war with Iraq, and then helped Rafsanjani win the presidency so that he could spearhead the post-war reconstruction program. Now, as then, Khamenei is not bent on infinite sacrifice. Perhaps allowing Rouhani’s victory is his way of empowering a conciliator to repair Iran’s frayed relations with the world and find some resolution to the nuclear dispute that enables the country to revive oil exports and resume normal trade.

That does not mean, of course, that Rouhani has an easy road ahead. He must wrangle the support of the hard-liners and lock in at least continued tacit backing from Khamenei. In doing so, he will have to overcome a decade of resentment. During his stint leading nuclear talks, Rouhani made the sole serious concession that the Islamic Republic has ever offered on its nuclear ambitions: a multi-year suspension of its enrichment activities that was ended just before Ahmadinejad took office.

The move won Rouhani the unending fury of the hard-liners, including Khamenei, who approved the deal but has publicly inveighed against Rouhani’s nuclear diplomacy as recently as last summer. Today, however, many Iranians—including, apparently, many within the establishment—find his ability to craft a viable deal with the world on the nuclear issue appealing. His election thus suggests that a historic shift in Iran’s approach to the world and to the nuclear standoff could be in the offing. Still, to overcome old antipathies among the conservatives and to advance his agenda for change within Iran’s Machiavellian political culture, Rouhani will need the clear and unwavering support of Khamenei, something that the Supreme Leader has only accorded to one president during his 25-year tenure: Ahmadinejad, in his first term.

For Washington, meanwhile, the election offered stark confirmation that its strategy is working, at least to a point. The outcome confirmed that political will for a nuclear deal exists within the Islamic Republic. Even with a more moderate president at the helm, however, the nuclear issue will not be readily resolved, and Iran’s divided political sphere is as difficult as ever. To overcome the deep-seated (and not entirely unjustified) paranoia of its ultimate decision-maker, the United States will need to be patient. It will need to understand, for example, that Rouhani will need to demonstrate to Iranians that he can produce tangible rewards for diplomatic overtures. That means that Washington should be prepared to offer significant sanctions relief in exchange for any concessions on the nuclear issue. Washington will also have to understand that Rouhani may face real constraints in seeking to solve the nuclear dispute without exacerbating the mistrust of the hard-liners. And all the while, the Obama administration will have to proceed cautiously, since appearing too effusive will diminish Rouhani’s domestic standing.

In other words, the path out of isolation and economic crisis is perilous, but Iran’s new president, who has sometimes been dubbed “the sheikh of diplomacy,” may just be the right man at the right moment to walk it.

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  • SUZANNE MALONEY is a Senior Fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
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