Iran election: What does Hassan Rohani mean for the United States?

Iran's new president Hassan Rohani is considered a reform-minded moderate. But ruling clerics and the Revolutionary Guard remain in control of Iran's nuclear program and foreign affairs – including its close relationship with the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

By , Staff writer

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    A supporter of Hassan Rohani celebrates during a gathering in Tehran, Iran, Saturday. Moderate cleric Rohani was declared the winner of Iran's presidential vote after gaining support among many reform-minded Iranians looking to claw back a bit of ground after years of crackdowns.
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The United States is taking a wait-and-see attitude toward Iran’s election of Hassan Rohani, generally perceived as the moderate, reformist candidate and the surprisingly clear winner in Friday’s presidential vote.

Initial statements from the White House and the State Department are cautiously welcoming.

“We admire the courage of the Iranian people who went to the polls and made their voices heard in a rigidly controlled environment that sought to limit freedom of expression and assembly,” said Secretary of State John Kerry. “We remain concerned about the lack of transparency in the electoral process, and the attempts to censor members of the media, the internet, and text messages. Despite these challenges, however, the Iranian people have clearly expressed their desire for a new and better future.”

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Would that “new and better future” include changes in policy as it applies to regional security and a relationship with the United States that has remained tense since the Islamic revolution of 1979 overthrew Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi?

The US will watch closely for any change to Iran’s nuclear policy and also to its support for the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

While Rohani’s victory puts him in charge of an executive branch that traditionally has taken the lead in handling the economy, nuclear efforts, defense, and foreign affairs remain primarily in the hands of the ruling clerics and their powerful protectors, the Revolutionary Guard, the Associated Press noted Sunday.
 
Rohani, a former nuclear negotiator, has called for reaching out to the international community but has little authority over Iran’s nuclear activities tied to sanctions.

On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned against easing sanctions on Iran, saying the international community must not get caught in "wishful thinking" and ease the pressure on Tehran.
 
"The more pressure increases on Iran, so will the chance of ending Iran's nuclear program, which remains the biggest threat to world peace," Mr. Netanyahu said. "Iran will be tested by its deeds."

There’s been no indication that the US position differs from Israel, nor is it likely to on Syria.
 
“Although Rohani argues for constructive interactions with other countries and although he supports applying a softer political tone – as opposed to the combative, controversial and provocative language that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or other hardliners utilize – when dealing with the international community and regional state actors in regards to Syria, Rohani has not called for an overall sweeping shift in Iran's foreign policy,” writes Middle East scholar Majid Rafizadeh on CNN’s web site Sunday. “For instance, Rohani has neither asked Assad to step down from power nor pressed to halt the Islamic Republic of Iran's military, intelligence, financial, and advisory support to Damascus.”

Other experts see in Rohani the possibility for change here.

“Rohani is, as we say in Persian, more bazaari than resistance, meaning he’s more a dealmaker than a rigid ideologue,” Karim Sadjadpour, an Iranian American and analyst for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the Washington Post. “It’s true that Iran’s existing foreign policy principles are pretty entrenched, but he may be able to impact them, at a minimum tactically.”

For President Obama and his national security team, Rohani represents “the best hope for detente with Iran,” Mr. Sadjadpour said.

For Americans, Iran’s election reflects – if nothing else – a vibrant voting democracy in a nation former present George W. Bush labeled a member of the “Axis of Evil” (along with North Korea and Iraq). Voter turnout there was estimated at 73 percent – higher than the 58 percent turnout in the 2012 US presidential election – and the winner was a political moderate who had pledged to “destroy extremism.”

But Iranians living in the United States – mostly in southern California, and largely those who had supported the Shah and fled during the 1979 revolution – remain skeptical.

“Some Iranians in Tehran are dancing in the streets. But here in Los Angeles, home to the largest community of Persians outside Iran, the reaction has been muted,” writes Robert Faturechi in the Los Angeles Times.

“It’s really sad that we’re hoping a Shia cleric is going to lead us out of the religious system,” said Siamak Kalhor, host on an Iranian-language radio station in Los Angeles, who voted absentee for Rohani. “We’re hoping a mullah is going to save us out of the mullahs’ hands…. It just shows, in hell there are certain dragons that are so scary that you find shelter among lions.”

“He is more liberal, quote unquote, than the others, but he’s not a reformist,” said Homa Sarshar, an Iranian activist and media personality. “For me, they’re all the same.”

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