Reports and reactions from Iran's presidential election have focused on two aspects of the result: That (a) the victor, Hassan Rouhani, 64, is a reformer (at least by comparison to the other candidates who contested the election), signaling Iranians -- especially young Iranians -- are reaching for change, and (b) that, even so, Rouhani's win means next to nothing because the real power remains in the hands of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (who personally vetted the candidates, whittling the list down to eight from more than 680 who applied), and the clerics, bolstered by the Revolutionary Guard.
The second analysis is probably still true; the jury's out on the first.
Make no mistake: the election results could end up being a major victory for the evidently many reform-minded Iranians. And it may also be a signal that the clerics are scared -- at the very least, that they don't have an appetite for a repeat of the mass protests that followed the previous presidential election, in 2009, that was widely seen as having been rigged. If the ruling clerics are experiencing some degree of fear and uncertainty, that can only be a good thing.
But whatever happens, the silver lining to Rouhani's win is it means we won't have to see or hear Mahmoud Ahmadinejad anymore (he leaves office in August). Anyone with half a brain can ruin a national economy, but no one has done more to stifle Arab-Israeli peace in recent years than the outgoing president -- he has denied the Holocaust and Israel's right to exist, and trumpeted Iran's role in bringing the future end to the Jewish state.
Of course, he isn't the only one in the region to spout off about Israel, but the real prospect of Iran acquiring a nuclear bomb made his comments so much more chilling, and not just for pro-Israel people. Like Rouhani, the departing Iranian president was merely a spokesman for the Ayatollahs (though he fell increasingly out of favour with Iran's religious leaders in recent years as he attempted, unsuccessfully, to wrest power from them), and yet this insane person consistently managed to make it look like he was the one in charge. Good riddance.
Rouhani won the presidency with over 50 per cent of the popular vote (thereby avoiding a second-round, run-off election -- and who knows whether the clerics might have changed their mind about doctoring the results at that point), a margin of victory that suggests he will enjoy a secure mandate.
But I wouldn't get too comfortable if I were him -- guess who else got 50-plus per cent of the vote? Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, two years ago -- and now the Turks are calling for his head.
Voters can sour on their election picks quickly -- this is true everywhere, but much more so in the present Arab Middle East where it's seemingly always spring. Rouhani can tinker with the economy all he wants, but the fact is the only way to repair it is to have the sanctions lifted. And the only way to do that is to start negotiating on nukes.
Fat chance that's happening: Set aside reports that moderate Rouhani in fact supports Iran's nuclear aspirations, a February Gallup poll found 63 per cent of Iranians are in favour of continuing the nuclear program, despite sanctions. Perhaps this election was more about elevating an un-Ahmadinejad than real progress for Iranians.
And speaking of progress, or rather lack thereof, last week the UN upped the official death toll in Syria's civil war to 93,000 (though it admitted the actual count was definitely much higher). The blood for those deaths is on the hands, first and foremost, of the cruel regime of Bashar Assad, but the rebels have also turned out to be a less than benevolent bunch.
It's not just the deaths -- there is rape and torture, too, and that can't stand. I've written previously only the United States can end this conflict, but it will not do so by sending token small arms and ammunition to the rebels.
Enforcing a no-fly zone is the most basic requirement, and President Obama is moving too slow. Yes, there are plenty of strategic reasons to not intervene -- chief among them: the Islamist and al-Qaida elements polluting rebel forces -- but the humanitarian responsibility to stop the killing trumps all. You can bet parts of the Arab Middle East will complain when the U.S. eventually assumes a larger role in Syria, but I suspect they'll complain louder in the long run if the Americans remain on the sidelines much longer.