In Focus | Iran elections

Cautious optimism and doubt greet new Iran President Hassan Rouhani

New Iran president can change history by taking bold steps on regional issues

  • By Habib Toumi, Bureau Chief
  • Published: 20:39 June 16, 2013
  • Gulf News

  • Image Credit: EPA
  • A file picture dated 14 June 2013, shows Iranian presidential candidate Hassan Rouhani showing his inked finger after casting his ballot at the Imam-Reza mosque in southern Tehran, Iran.
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Manama: Reactions to Saturday’s news of the election of Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s new president have ranged from celebratory and optimistic to restrained and sceptical.

Officially, the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) sent their congratulations to the new president, wishing him success and his country prosperity as he takes over.

The swift congratulatory cables seemed to indicate an earnest desire to start a new chapter in the GCC-Iran relations that have been particularly strained in the last two years amid clear accusations by the GCC of “blatant interference and meddling” in the domestic affairs of its members, mainly Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

The three countries have announced cases of espionage reportedly linked to the Iranian intelligence services that Tehran invariably denied.

To the contrary of the unanimous official reactions, observers were divided over the merit of electing the new president.

Some expressed elation, both for the election of a reformer and the end of a presidency dominated by tense relations with Gulf countries.

“We welcome the election of Hassan Rouhani and we see it as a new chapter in relations between Iran and the Gulf countries,” Kamal Mohammad, a Bahraini analyst, said.

“His statement about Saudi Arabia and his ostensibly positive approach about respecting the internal affairs of other countries seemed to signal a new mindset in the Iranian leadership that could help bring more trust, confidence and warmth to the doubt-filled, shaky and cold relations between the two shores of the Arabian Gulf and well beyond,” he told Gulf News.

Last week, Rouhani’s campaign deputy manager, Morteza Bank, told Saudi daily Al Sharq Al Awsat that the “Gulf region enjoys a special geostrategic and strategic position in Rouhani’s government”.

“Accordingly, in order to improve relations with the neighbouring countries, Saudi Arabia is Rouhani’s top priority,” he was quoted as saying.

Bank said that Rouhani’s position as the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council for over a decade and the relationships he built with leaders and officials of neighbouring states were evidence of his ability to bolster relations.

“Rouhani has very good experience in this matter, as he is the person who initiated and ensured the security agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia was signed,” he said.

In the Bahraini capital Manama, Fareed Ahmad Hassan, a former editor in chief, said that Rouhani should draw on his vast experience as a member of the Iranian regime to make much-needed changes.

“He has a great opportunity to implement a large section of his programme in a short period of time,” he said.

“He is well known for his moderation and for his ability to broker compromises. I am confident that, thanks to his new status as the country’s president and to his high-profile experience, he can succeed both internally and externally,” Fareed said.

Rouhani was Iran’s the top nuclear negotiator under former president Mohammad Khatami and served as top security official under Hashemi Rafsanjani.

However, the media expert warned against excessive optimism. “The problem in Iran is that the president does not have all the power in his hands and he has to depend on the Supreme Guide who has the last word over the domestic and foreign policies.

“In fact, the Supreme Guide has already decided on the role that Rouhani should play. We must always remember that a president in Iran makes the moves that are sanctioned by the Guide. Rouhani is much more moderate than the outgoing president and he has much better relations with most people.”

According to Fareed, a positive step that would help write a new chapter in the GCC–Iran relations book would be settling the issue of the Iran-occupied UAE islands.

“If Rouhani seriously addresses and succeeds in resolving the issue of the islands occupied by his country for over 40 years, he will change history and earn himself an outstanding reputation. He can also push for not interfering in the domestic affairs of other countries, particularly Bahrain, and seek an internationally satisfactory deal on the nuclear issue,” he said.

Other grounds where Rouhani could prove his positive policies and secure greater respect for his country are Syria and Iraq.

“He can restore confidence in Iran by ending Tehran’s involvement in Syria and by allowing Iraq to move forward without the overwhelming Iranian influence,” Fareed said.

“His people want out of the unemployment in which they have been sinking, and out of the isolation where they have been forced because of the sanctions. If he succeeds by addressing the roots of all problems, the whole world, and not just the Iranian people, will applaud him and hail his name.”

Mohammad Jaber, a Bahraini political analyst, said that while he greeted the results of the elections with “sober satisfaction”, he was eager to see results on the grounds and the materialisation of Rouhani’s pledge for a “constructive interaction with the world”.

“The fact that Iran has a new president means that the situation cannot be in any way worse than it was under the outgoing president,” he said.

“Ahmadinejad was too much of hardliner to ponder bridging the gap between Iran and the Arab countries, particularly its neighbours. We hope that Rouhani, who worked closely with other reformist presidents and who has been feeding the world positive signals, will be able to achieve concrete results on the grounds,” he said.

Jaber said that the tasks were “monumental” for Rouhani after years of tension and lack of cooperation that have had a “terrible impact on the country, the region and the international community”. However, he added that they were not impossible.

“We pray that domestically, he can steer Iran out of its severe economic hardship and put elated smiles on the faces of his people who believed in him well ahead of the other candidates.

“At the Gulf level, we hope that he can keep his country away from the threats of wars and destruction for the region. We have been through too many wars that have left a trail of destruction and devastation at several levels.

“We have also had to live through very tense moments that could have been avoided with greater political wisdom and less antagonistic rhetoric,” he said.

Yet, for some analysts, no breakthrough should be expected from the election of Rouhani since “it will not change anything in the relations between Tehran and the Arab capitals since he is not really a decision maker at the state level”.

“It is true that he had promised during the elections campaign that he would improve his country’s strained relations with Iran’s neighbours and with the west,” but he remains restricted by the powerful religious establishment in his ability to move,” Hoda Al Wazzan, a media specialist, said.

Pessimism was strikingly obvious in Tariq Al Hameed’s column for the London-based Sharq Al Awsat on Sunday.

“We have to appreciate that caution is very critical even with the victory of Rouhani,” he wrote.

“We need to be aware that the post of president is not really significant in Iran, a military country wearing the turban of Wilayat Al Faqeeh [Custodianship of Islamic jurist over people].

“A president, regardless of how moderate he is, cannot do much under this system and the domination of the Revolutionary Guards.”

Al Hameed mentioned that past reformist presidents Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami had other agendas as well.

“We must recall that Hezbollah was set up when Rafsanjani was president and that Tehran’s influence in the region grew dramatically when Khatami was talking about tolerance and dialogue,” he said.

The columnist said that Iran would adopt “a double-speak policy” once more under Rouhani.

“Wisdom requires that Iran, and not the region, should prove its good intentions first. Rouhani should, for instance, take the initiative on the Syria issue.”

Gulf News