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Iran’s ‘Pragmatist’ Rohani May Defuse Gulf Tensions

Iranian President-elect Hassan Rohani’s pledge to ease his country’s isolation may help to defuse decades of tension with Gulf Arab states, which accuse Iran of meddling in their internal politics.

Rohani promptly made overtures to Iran’s neighbors today at his first news conference since his weekend victory. He said he would seek “close, cordial” relations and expressed hope for “great ties” with Saudi Arabia, which accused Iran of trying to kill its U.S. envoy in 2011.

The president-elect also pledged to make Iran’s nuclear program, the subject of much concern among Gulf states, more transparent to ease the “brutal” international sanctions that have crippled the nation’s economy.

While Iran’s foreign policy is largely decided by its non-elected clerical elite, “the president does have some influence on foreign policy to some degree, and Rohani has called for Iran to improve its relations with the outside world, the West and the GCC,” Sam Wilkin, an analyst in Dubai at Control Risks Group, said by telephone yesterday. Rohani is “much more of a pragmatist” than outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he said.

Gulf Congratulations

The leaders of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council congratulated the 64-year-old Rohani, who takes office in August, on his victory. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, addressed Rohani in a telegram quoted by the official Saudi Press Agency, praising “the statements in which you expressed how keen you are on cooperation and on improving the relations between our two brotherly nations.”

Ties between Shiite Muslim Iran and the GCC, which is ruled by Sunni Muslims, deteriorated this year after Saudi Arabia and Bahrain said they arrested spy rings linked to Iran. The GCC states call the body of water that separates them from Iran the Arabian Gulf, whereas Iran has complained whenever maps, including some by Google Inc., fail to display the name as Persian Gulf.

In December, the GCC said it would form a unified command for its air, land and marine forces to face a “very serious” security threat from Iran, whose nuclear program it sees as a regional menace. At his news conference today, Rohani, a former chief nuclear negotiator, reasserted Iran’s right to a nuclear program.

Needs Approval

Rohani will need approval from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Iran’s ultimate authority, to improve foreign relations and turn around an economy battered by international sanctions over its nuclear program.

Rohani told the Asharq al-Awsat newspaper earlier this month that if elected, he would improve and expand Iran’s relations with neighboring countries to “remove the clouds of misunderstanding,” and reverse the “recently exacerbated” rivalry between his country and Saudi Arabia.

Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai, said he doesn’t see relations with the GCC warming immediately.

“I don’t expect any breakthrough in the short term. What you’re going to see is a more pleasant diplomatic style toward the GCC but with the same bite behind it,” Karasik said in a phone interview.

Wilkin sees “an opportunity for the presidency to start again, to turn over a new sheet from the days of Ahmadinejad and his nationalist rhetoric and to normalize relations to some degree.

‘‘The fundamental antagonism between a Shiite-cleric regime and the regime of the Gulf will remain in place,’’ Wilkin said. Still, ‘‘Rohani could open up diplomacy and talks trade ties, and generally push for better relations.’’

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