East or West, few expect Rohani to reconcile Iran with its foes

Iran presidential candidate Hassan Rohani

(Reuters) – Iran’s enemies and friends responded to the election of Hassan Rohani as its next president with a little hope, but more skepticism, that the moderate cleric can close the rift between Tehran and much of the world.

Washington said it stood ready to engage with Iran to reach a “diplomatic solution” over its nuclear program, which the West suspects is intended to produce nuclear weapons – something Iran denies.

“We respect the vote of the Iranian people and congratulate them for their participation in the political process, and their courage in making their voices heard,” the White House said in a statement.

“It is our hope that the Iranian government will heed the will of the Iranian people and make responsible choices that create a better future for all Iranians.”

Israeli officials were cooler, one minister suggesting that the election of an apparent moderate merely made it easier for Tehran to buy time to forge ahead with its nuclear work.

“The moment you have a candidate who is perceived to be a reformer … it might be easier for some countries to again be tempted to say ‘Let’s give (Iran) another chance, let’s push off the timetable again, another round of talks and another round of talks’,” said Civil Defense Minister Gilad Erdan.

“In the meantime, the (uranium) centrifuges are running.”


There was caution too in the Arab world, where conflict pitting Sunni Muslims against Shi’ites is intensifying – most of all in Syria, where Shi’ite Iran backs the government against mostly Sunni rebels.

Syrian opposition activists saw little hope for change from Rohani.

“The election is cosmetic,” said opposition activist Omar al-Hariri from Deraa, where the uprising began two years ago.

Muhammed al-Husseini, from the Sunni Islamist rebel group Ahrar al-Sham in Raqaa, noted power in Iran rested with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. “The powers given to the Iranian president are weak these days,” he said. “They are fake powers.”

In Saudi Arabia, whose U.S.-allied rulers lead opposition to what they see as Iran’s drive to spread its power and religion, well-informed analyst Jamal Khashoggi said: “I’m sure for the Saudi leadership this is the best outcome of the elections.”

He recalled that Iran’s last reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, who visited Riyadh while in office from 1997-2005, had mended ties – but at a time of less ferocious disputes. Unlike now, Khashoggi said, “Iran was not meddling heavily in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen … There were no Shi’ites killing Sunnis.”

Iran’s friends and foes alike seemed to agree that Rohani’s victory would not bring fundamental change in foreign policy.

“Our relations with Iran was that of a resistance movement and a state. A state that is governed by a higher political echelon,” said Mahmoud Al-Zahar, a senior official of Palestinian group Hamas, backed by Iran.

“That (higher) political echelon was not changed and therefore our relations should not change.”

In Bahrain, whose Saudi-backed Sunni monarchy accuses Iran of fomenting protests among the Shi’ite majority on the island since 2011, Information Minister Samira Rajab told Reuters: “I think Rohani is one of a team. And anybody who comes from that team will continue the same policy … We have no more trust in the Iranian regime after what happened in Bahrain.”


But Britain called on Rohani “to set Iran on a different course for the future: addressing international concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, taking forward a constructive relationship with the international community, and improving the political and human rights situation for the people of Iran‪”.

Laurent Fabius, French foreign minister, said: “The international community has high expectations from Iran, especially about its nuclear program and its involvement in Syria. We are ready to work on this with the new Iranian president.”

The European Union’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who chairs the nuclear talks between Iran and major powers, said voters had given Rohani “a strong mandate”.

“I remain firmly committed to working with the new Iranian leadership towards a swift diplomatic solution of the nuclear issue,” she added.

In Egypt, by far the biggest Arab nation, new rulers from the Muslim Brotherhood had lately launched a rapprochement with Iran but have now joined a Sunni call for jihad in Syria after Iran’s Lebanese ally Hezbollah sent in its fighters last month.

The Brotherhood still hopes for a change of heart in Tehran: “We are looking forward to seeing how the winner is going to act,” said Murad Ali, a spokesman for the Islamist movement’s Freedom and Justice Party.

The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and the replacement of its Sunni leader Saddam Hussein with an elected, Shi’ite-led government brought an extension of Iranian influence in the region and alarmed Sunni Arab powers.

A spokesman for Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki congratulated Rohani and said Baghdad would deal with Iran “regardless of who is president and whatever the choice of the Iranian people”.

For Shi’ites who live in Sunni-ruled states, and often complain of being unfairly branded as agents of the Persian-speaking power, any reduction in tension would be welcome.

Khalil Ebrahim al-Marzooq of Bahrain’s opposition al-Wefaq party, which speaks for many Shi’ites, said the election might bring warmer ties across the Gulf that would help his community.

“When relations are better,” he said, “it gives the government no excuses to deprive the people of Bahrain of their rights.”

By Reuters


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