Iranian President-Elect Hassan Rohani’s vow to improve ties with the world carried him to a surprise first-round win. It also may have rewound the clock on a potential military strike against his country over its nuclear program.
“Those advocating an attack on Iran have been dealt a setback,” said Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy in Washington. “The chances of an attack on Iran are even more remote than they have been in many years.”
While Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, 73, retains the power over national security, especially the nuclear program, past presidents have been able to influence the tone of foreign policy. The departure of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose anti-Israel rhetoric and questioning of the Holocaust made Iran a pariah and helped prompt more sanctions, removes a lightning rod for global scorn.
Western countries signaled an interest in engaging with Rohani. The British Foreign Office urged him to set a new course for Iran, and the European Union’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said she hoped his victory will lead to a “swift diplomatic solution” to the standoff over the nuclear program.
The question is whether Rohani will have influence beyond changing the image Iran presents to the world.
“Ahmadinejad was a figure everyone loves to hate,” said Gerald Steinberg, professor of political science at Bar Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. “Rohani is more sophisticated and a softer face of the same Iranian leadership.”
Rohani, 64, in the first news conference since his surprise first-round win this weekend, said he will pursue a policy of moderation to improve Iran’s relations with regional countries and beyond. He takes office in August.
“We will try to win back trust,” Rohani said. “We can make it clear to the whole world that the measures and activities of the Islamic Republic of Iran are totally within international regulations and mechanisms.”
All six Iranian candidates for president were approved by Khamenei, and all of them said they backed Iran’s right to nuclear energy. Still, Rohani, who was Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator under former President Mohammad Khatami, said progress shouldn’t come at the expense of the economy and the well-being of the population.
“It’s fine for centrifuges to spin if people are also getting by,” he said during a debate this month.
The Obama administration said in a statement after the election results that the U.S. “remains ready to engage the Iranian government directly in order to reach a diplomatic solution that will fully address the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.”
Iranian officials say the nuclear program is for energy and medical research. Israel and the U.S. say they believe Iran is trying to develop a nuclear-weapons capability. The Jewish state has threatened to attack Iran should other means fail to stop the Islamic republic from trying to obtain nuclear weapons.
Rohani’s victory revealed an internal opposition to the policies that have ostracized Iran.
He promised in April that he would pursue “dialogue and interaction with the world.” He has spoken in favor of increased freedom for the press as well as non-governmental organizations and vowed to improve the economy, which is set to contract 1.3 percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Iranian officials have at times threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz if attacked and as the U.S. and Europe intensified sanctions targeting its financial and energy industries. An average of 14 crude tankers sail each day through the strait, which is 21 miles (34 kilometers) wide at its narrowest, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, indicating a closing of the waterway would lead to a spike in oil prices.
Most of the oil exported by Saudi Arabia, OPEC’s biggest producer, as well as crude from Iraq, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Iran itself passes through the waterway, making Hormuz the world’s most important energy choke point, with a daily flow of 17 million barrels a day in 2011, according to EIA data.
West Texas Intermediate Crude for July delivery gained 10 cents to $97.95 a barrel at 11:32 a.m. on the New York Mercantile Exchange after rising to $98.74, the highest intraday level since Sept. 17.
Rohani’s grace period with world powers may be short after talks about the nuclear program over the past two years have failed to narrow differences.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday urged the world to maintain its pressure, saying Khamenei, not Rohani, holds the nuclear strings. Israel is not “deluding” itself over Rohani’s win and Iran’s nuclear program must be stopped no matter how, Netanyahu said.
“I don’t think any policy would have the ability to really change the attitude of the U.S. and the European Union in trying to squeeze Iran over the nuclear issue,” said Edward Bell, an analyst at the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit.
President Barack Obama reached out at least twice to the supreme leader without success. Iranian officials have said the U.S. approach was never genuine, designed only to curtail Iran’s rights and influence in the region.
Rohani’s election offers hope for a renewed diplomatic effort, said Geneive Abdo, a research fellow at the Washington-based Stimson Center.
“If the rhetoric from Iran changes, this gives Obama once again the opportunity to call for some type of engagement,” she said. “It will completely de-escalate the sense of urgency for the U.S. to take action on Iran.”
Rohani trained as a lawyer and serves on the Assembly of Experts, a religious body that nominates the supreme leader. He’s also head of the Center for Strategic Research at the Expediency Council, an advisory panel headed by former president Ali Akbar Rafsanjani. He holds master’s and doctorate law degrees from Glasgow Caledonian University, according to his website.
Rohani’s careful grooming contrasts with Ahmadinejad’s, whose unkempt appearance and casual dress initially connected him to some voters.
The new president may be measured against the standards set by Ahmadinejad’s predecessor Khatami, who eased social and media restrictions and promoted interaction with the West.
At his campaign rallies, Rohani vowed to end Iran’s isolation and pursue a policy of reconciliation. He has little choice if he wants to revive an economy hurt by inflation at 30 percent and an economic crisis that left a quarter of Iranians age 15 to 29 unemployed in the year ended March 20.
Sanctions punishing Iran for its nuclear program include curbs on financial transactions and crude oil exports, the country’s main source of revenue.
“Sanctioning Ahmadinejad was very easy, it comes very naturally to the entire international community,” said Cliff Kupchan, director for the Middle East at the New York-based Eurasia Group. “Sanctioning a moderate, well-respected, judicious, articulate cleric is one heck of a lot harder.”