While other nations express cautious optimism at election of moderate Hasan Rowhani, Canada’s John Baird dismisses vote as “effectively meaningless.”
The overwhelming reaction of international governments to the dramatic outcome of Iran’s presidential election was cautious but hopeful. Some even wondered whether it might lead to a historic breakthrough in the dangerous nuclear conflict between Iran and the West.
In contrast, the response of the Canadian government — dismissing the vote as “effectively meaningless” and calling the newly elected Iranian president “one of Ayatollah Khamenei’s puppets” — was cynical and extreme.
Should it surprise us that Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird was in Jerusalem shortly after he made that statement, listening to his comrade-in-arms, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saying essentially the same thing? In today’s polarized Middle East, there must be something promising afoot if both the current Israeli and Canadian governments oppose it.
Many of the thousands of celebrating Iranians who streamed onto the streetslast weekend seemed surprised at what they had just done. In fact, if the U.S. and the West respond to this new opportunity with wisdom and restraint, Iranians may have taken the first small step in rewriting their country’s troubled history. With a turnout of more than 70 per cent, Iranians stunned everyone by electing a centrist cleric and former nuclear negotiator, Hasan Rowhani, with 51 per cent of the vote. He was the only candidate to run as a moderate in a field of conservatives.
Speaking to journalists on Monday for the first time since his victory, Rowhani said he wanted to reduce tensions with the U.S., calling them “an old wound, which must be healed.” His election was a clear repudiation of the vile belligerence of outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and was seen by many as an indirect rebuke to the despised Iranian regime itself, led by its Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
In Iran, Khamenei is the ultimate boss, not the president. The Supreme Leader has the final say over security issues, including Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard, as well as the country’s controversial nuclear development program. But the president sets much of the tone on foreign policy, has considerable domestic authority and is able to bring in his own people at all levels of government.
President-elect Rowhani has the added benefit of having a political career at the centre of Iran’s conservative establishment. He is seen as a pragmatist who will work toward bridging the growing gulf between Iran’s clerics and its people, who are suffering under the crushing burden of international sanctions. In his campaign, he frequently made the connection between the lack of agreement on the nuclear issue and the country’s shattered economy.
There has never been any question of whether Iran will abandon its nuclear program, which it consistently says is intended solely for peaceful purposes. That would never be accepted in Tehran. But the issue of nuclear weapons is different. Iran says it has no desire to move toward nuclear arms, but it has failed to convince the international community with sufficient safeguards. This is where the new president is expected to direct his attention.
However, Rowhani will tread carefully. In 2003, when he was Iran’s nuclear negotiator, he signed on to a voluntary suspension of uranium enrichment as a confidence-building measure with the West. But this was denounced within Iran as a betrayal of the country’s interests. His conservative critics accused Rowhani of making concessions without getting anything back from the U.S. and the West. The backlash led to the conservative election sweep in 2005 that brought Ahmadinejad to power. Rowhani has undoubtedly learned from that experience.
Most observers of the nuclear impasse believe it is now up to the Americans and their allies to make the next move. So far, they have only offered to lift some of the international sanctions in exchange for Iranian concessions. For Iran to consider a deal, it is believed the West will need to offer significant sanctions relief in return for genuine limits to the Iranian nuclear program.
As for the likelihood of military conflict with Iran, that possibility has receded. Netanyahu and his allies who favour a military strike have lost their Iranian foil with Ahmadinejad’s departure. To their chagrin, Iran will soon have a moderate face, at least for the time being, and there will be little that Netanyahu — or John Baird — can do about it. We should be thankful for this.
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