Supporters of Rohani hold a picture of him as they celebrate his victory in Tehran June 15, 2013.
Photo: REUTERS/Fars News/Sina Shiri

In elections heralded as being neither free nor fair – with the candidates preselected for their loyalty to the supreme leader, and the voters suffering under massive domestic repression – Iranians overwhelmingly elected a “moderate” cleric, Hassan Rohani, as president, an outcome that has been hailed as a harbinger of positive change.

It is true that, during the campaign, Rohani appeared to reject the hard line favored by his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He spoke in debates of improving relations with the West, of establishing a ministry for women’s affairs, and of creating more opportunities and freedoms for the country’s youth. His tone is undoubtedly less incendiary than that to which the world has become accustomed from Iranian leadership, and his message has been one of responsiveness, inclusiveness and accountability.

However, Rohani is the same person who struck a conciliatory posture as Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, under another reformist president, Mohammed Khatami, while presiding over the secret advance of the nuclear program. Rohani was the one who boasted that, even when Iran had suspended uranium enrichment, it was able to make its greatest nuclear advances, saying, “While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the facility in Isfahan,” a crucial nuclear site. “In fact, by creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work in Isfahan.”

Simply put, Rohani had patented the strategy of using negotiations – or negotiations about negotiations – as a cover for the uranium enrichment program.

And more: Rohani is the same person who, while calling in campaign speeches for greater responsiveness to the needs of young people, had presided over the crackdown on student protesters in 1999, declaring then that student demonstrators who had damaged public property were “enemies of the state,” a charge that carried with it the threat of execution. The person who seeks a new conciliatory approach with the world – and an end to confrontationist rhetoric – also referred to Israel as “the great Zionist Satan” in an address last year.

Most important, Rohani was a party to an undemocratic election charade, one of a vetted group of candidates, all supreme loyalists to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, all with ties to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, all supportive of the Iranian nuclear program.

Indeed, while two of the leaders of the democratic opposition, Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi, languished under house arrest, two of the approved presidential candidates had been indicted for terrorist acts and were under an Interpol arrest warrant. At the same time, numerous would-be candidates, particularly women, were barred from participating. Indeed, for many Iranians, Rohani may merely have been the most palatable option among those permitted to run.

As such, if there is cause for optimism in the wake of the Iranian elections, it likely has less to do with the man Iranians chose, and more to do with the Iranian people themselves. Indeed, it bodes very well for the country’s democratic future that, despite widespread repression in the run-up to the vote – and despite the fraud and violent aftermath of the elections in 2009 – Iranians turned out in large numbers and cast ballots for the candidate seen to be the most reflective of their values and their desire for freedom.

In particular, a little-known – but highly relevant – recent study of the democratic sensibility of the Iranian people found that Iranians’ democratic impulses are comparable to those of, for example, Eastern Europeans prior to the democratic revolutions of the late 1980s, or South Koreans in the lead-up to their country’s democratization several years earlier. Accordingly, notwithstanding rampant repression and the violent stifling of dissent, the Iranian people selected the most acceptable candidate on offer. In so doing, they have sent a strong message to the ayatollah about the resilience of their democratic spirit.

Let there be no mistake about it, Iranians are as conscious as anyone that true decision-making power in Iran remains with Ayatollah Khamenei. If Rohani is to follow through on promises to lift Internet restrictions, to free political prisoners, to limit the activities of the morality police, and to improve relations with the West, it will only be with the consent of the supreme leader.

However, given the demonstrable enthusiasm of Iranians for Rohani’s professed platform – and with two-thirds of the 70 million Iranian people under the age of 35 – perhaps the ayatollah will calculate that the cause of preserving his regime is best served by giving the people more of what they want and deserve.

Rohani is probably not as moderate as his campaign speeches suggest, and Khamenei remains the repressive autocrat he has always been. Yet, the new Iranian president has clearly been successful by reflecting the democratic sensibilities of the population, while the ayatollah desires to legitimate the aging theocratic regime; perhaps both will begin to see the benefits of a softer tone.

But will a change in tone presage a change in substance? When Rohani, in a campaign speech, called for “an end to extremism,” saying, “We have no option but moderation,” did this signal a change in both domestic and foreign policy? As a Rohani supporter – shocked that her vote really counted – put it, “It is unbelievable. Have the people really won?” And so the questions become: Will Iran verifiably halt its illegal pursuit of nuclear weapons? Will it end its incendiary incitement to hate and genocide? Will it renounce its state-orchestrated international terrorism? Will it cease and desist from its massive human rights violations? In a word, will the Iranian critical mass of threat – and violations – come to an end? The Iranian people have spoken. The Iranian regime has yet to act. The whole world is watching.

The author is a Canadian MP, emeritus professor of law at McGill University, and co-chair of the Inter-Parliamentary Group for Human Rights in Iran, and of its Iranian Political Prisoner Global Advocacy Project.