June 16, 2013

Iran's new president greeted with cautious optimism

Hasan Rowhani is a moderate, not a reformist, and the bar is pretty low for any alternative to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

By BRIAN MURPHY The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

Hasan Rowhani
click image to enlarge

Hasan Rowhani, Iran’s newly elected president, stands in front of a portrait of the late Ayatollah Khomeini at a shrine outside Tehran on Sunday. Many saw his win as a slap to the ruling clerics, sending a message that they cannot keep the opposition bottled up.

The Associated Press

The U.S. and other world powers, meanwhile, are likely to move quickly to restart nuclear negotiations, which have failed to make any headway after four rounds since last year. This sets up a potential quandary for Iran.

The current nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, finished a distant third in the election and is something of Rowhani's antithesis, insisting that Iran cannot give an inch to its foes. So far, Iran's negotiating position has been that the West must ease sanctions as a first step before anything else can happen.

What the Iranian president can offer is advice and attempt to nudge views in his direction.

Rowhani has been at the negotiating table before as Iran's envoy beginning in 2003, just a year after Tehran's revived nuclear efforts were revealed. Rowhani has been highly critical of Iran's leadership for not showing more nimble tactics and allowing the economic squeeze to become so painful, with inflation now galloping at 30 percent and critical oil exports cut in half.

In some ways, Rowhani's rise may owe a bit to the sanctions and the predictions by Washington that they will embolden dissent. During the street celebrations Saturday, there were many chants about Iran's sinking economy and international isolation peppered among the calls for greater freedoms and political rights.

Rowhani knew where to strike in the campaign, constantly returning to economic woes. "Which family today doesn't have someone who isn't unemployed?" he asked. "If the administration had a plan, couldn't this be solved?"

The pro-reform Etemad daily carried a front page image of the smiling cleric Rowhani flashing a V-for-victory sign: "A salute to Iran and to the sheik of hope."

"Rowhani may face problems like sanctions, inflation and so," said Mirzababa Motaharinejad, a member of the pro-reform Mardomslari party. "But authorities will cooperate with him."

Up to a point. Iran has been here before and it didn't end well for reformists.

In 2001, reformist Mohammad Khatami steamrolled into his second term as president. The next four years were a stalemate as hard-liners allied with Khamenei blocked attempts at political reforms in parliament. Authorities gave up some ground on social freedoms -- letting women's head scarves slide back and permitting more Western films and music -- but there also were pinpoint strikes on dissent with arrests and newspaper closures.

Now, the Revolutionary Guard and its nationwide paramilitary force, the Basij, are far stronger and more deeply integrated into every level of society, including monitoring social media.

It's unlikely Rowhani will push too hard anyway. He is moderate in the mold of his political patron, former President Akbar Heshami Rafsanjani, who wages selective battles against the Islamic establishment but manages to stay an insider with a post within the ruling hierarchy. Rowhani's candidacy was something of a consolation prize after the ruling clerics barred Rafsanjani from running. Rafsanjani will now play the role of shadow president, advising from the wings.

A test ahead could be whether Rowhani attempts to win the release of the candidates from the disputed 2009 election, Green Movement leader Mir Hossein Mousavi and former parliament speaker Mahdi Karroubi, who have been under house arrest since early 2011. Chants at his rallies and victory celebrations urged for their freedom.

"There is a lot to be cautious about. Rowhani is part of the system. He has served in some of the highest positions in Iran, including within the military and national security establishment," said Alireza Nader, senior policy analyst at the Rand Corp., a Washington-based think tank that receives U.S. funding. "He is not a reformist. He appears as an alternative candidate when compared to people like former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This is a low bar."


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