Double celebration: Days after Hassan Rouhani won the presidential elections, the Iranians had another good news to celebrate when their football team beat South Korean and qualified to go to Brazil for World Cup 2014. AFP
Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s president-elect is neither a reformist nor a moderate. He is a pragmatist. He has two important matters to handle: One domestic and one external. But he cannot deal with them in isolation. One is connected with the other. Domestically, it is the economy. The Iranians now want him to clear the economic mess which the outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had only aggravated during his eight years in office. It was the main campaign issue.
For most Iranians, Rouhani was not the ideal candidate. But he was the best out of the eight candidates who were cleared by the Guardian Council, a body that reflects the views of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He won the elections with an outright majority of 50.7 per cent, avoiding a runoff. He had the support of two former reformist presidents – Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, the former an economic reformer and the latter a political.
Rafsanjani came forward to contest the elections but was disqualified by the Guardian Council. His supporters say the disqualification was made on the pretext of his physical fitness, though he remains the head of the Expediency Council, a body that advises the Supreme Leader and sorts out disputes between Majlis (parliament) and the Executive. During his two-term presidency from 1989 to 1997, Iran’s economy improved despite economic sanctions. Once disqualified, he threw his full weight behind Rouhani.
Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (L) meeting the president-elect, Hassan Rowhani (L) at his office in Tehran on June 16. AFP
Like Rafsanjani, Khatami also served two terms – from1997-2005. Known as Iran’s philosopher president, he gave hope to the youth by advocating greater freedom of expression, tolerance and a role for civil society, constructive diplomatic relations with other states including those in Asia and the European Union, and an economic policy that supported a free market and foreign investment.
Rouhani served as national security advisor under the two reform-minded presidents.
With Rafsanjani and Khatami backing Rouhani, described by the international media as a moderate cleric, victory was almost assured. In his victory statement, Rouhani, who once headed Iran’s nuclear negotiation team, described his triumph as a victory of moderation and a victory of progress over extremism and bad behaviour. During his campaign, he called for greater interaction and dialogue with the outside world, including the West and slammed Ahmadinejad for failing to prevent harsh international sanctions on Iran.
Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran has survived different types of international sanctions. But last year’s US sanctions on countries and companies that buy or sell Iran’s oil have dealt a crippling blow to the economy with the value of the currency plummeting by 50 per cent and annual inflation reaching 30 per cent.
Can the 64-year-old Rouhani salvage Iran’s economy and improve relations with the West? Both these issues are linked to Iran’s nuclear programme, which in turn is linked to the security of the Middle East. Following his victory, Rouhani reiterated his pledge to pursue constructive interaction with the world and “more active” negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme.
In an apparent response, the United States and its European allies called on Rouhani to re-enter the nuclear talks. The call amounted to an endorsement of the election results. It was in sharp contrast to the stand taken by the US and its European allies in 2009 when they rejected the reelection of Ahmadinehad and supported a protest campaign by the urban elite and the supporters of defeated candidates Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi.
Following Rouhani’s victory, the White House said it respected the results and was ready to engage in talks with the new government. But Rouhani is not the kind of leader who will dismantle Iran’s nuclear programme which has reached a relatively advanced stage in terms of enrichment. Besides, Rouhani is a strong backer of Iran’s nuclear programme. He even approved of hiding Iran’s nuclear development work.
Western diplomats familiar with Rouhani’s work as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005 say that Iran’s next president is no pushover and has always been firmly committed to the country’s nuclear programme.
In a 2004 speech to Iran’s Supreme Cultural Revolution Council, Rouhani said: “As for building the atomic bomb, we never wanted to move in that direction and we have not yet completely developed our fuel cycle capability. This also happens to be our main problem.”
But he added a rider, saying: “If one day we are able to complete the (nuclear) fuel cycle and the world sees that it has no choice, that we do possess the technology, then the situation will be different… The world did not want Pakistan to have an atomic bomb or Brazil to have the fuel cycle. But Pakistan built its bomb and Brazil has its fuel cycle, and the world started to work with them. Our problem is that we have not achieved either one, but we are standing at the threshold.”
Since that speech, Iran’s nuclear programme has almost reached a point of no-return. Iran, a big oil producer, insists that its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes only and says Islam does not approve of nuclear weapons. But the US and its allies in Europe and the Arab world continue to doubt Iran’s statements.
Despite the economic hardships, the nuclear programme still has wide support in Iran. A poll in September 2010 by the International Peace Institute found that 71 per cent of Iranians favoured the development of the nuclear programme. But following last year’s US sanctions on Iran’s oil exports, the support for nuclear programme dropped to 66 per cent. Analysts say Iranians back their country’s nuclear development but they do not want it at a big price.
So they expect Rouhani to get the sanctions relaxed and improve the economy while keeping the nuclear programme intact. On Monday Rouhani said Iran would be more transparent in its nuclear work. His pledge came almost at the same time that Yukiya Amano, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said Iran was making “steady progress” in expanding its nuclear programme and the international sanctions did not seem to be slowing it down.
Iran’s nuclear programme is a major concern of the United States, its European allies, Israel and the Gulf countries. If Iran progresses towards making weapons-grade uranium, it will change the security equation of the Middle East. Israel, which has more than 300 nuclear warheads, will lose its regional power status. The US considers the oil rich Middle East a strategic region. But oil is not the only fact that makes the US interfere in the Middle East. It is largely Israel. Soon the US will achieve energy independence and may lose interest in the Middle Eastern oil. This is because of the United States’ shale oil revolution which is touted as the great game changer. But oil or no oil, Israel’s control of US politics through the Jewish lobby will continue.
Israel does not want a nuclear Iran which is gradually growing up to be a regional power on par with the Zionist state. A nuclear Iran could be a major threat to Israel’s expansionist policy – a policy that seeks to capture all of Palestine and the area between Nile in Egypt and Euphrates in Iraq. So at the behest of Israel, the US seeks to bring about regime change in Iran or at least weaken Iran economically and militarily.
Joining the US efforts which seek to ensure Israel’s security are Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States. Saudi Arabia is financing a global campaign to show Shiite Islam, the version of Islam practised in Iran, as a heretic sect. As part of this campaign, Saudi Arabia is supporting the Sunni rebellion in Syria. It is also believed that al-Qaeda-in-Iraq, a Sunni Muslim group, which is largely responsible for terrorist bomb blasts targeting Shiite civilians in Iraq, is funded by Sunni sources in the Gulf states. According to wikileaks cables, Saudi Arabia even wanted the US to bomb Iran’s nuclear sites.
These pro-US Gulf states whip up the fear of a Shiite crescent in the Middle East, joining Iran, Syria and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
Saudi Arabia’s former intelligence chief, Prince Muqrin, once told American diplomats that the Middle East’s so-called Shiite Crescent was “becoming a full moon” as Iranian influence spread.
With the Hezbollah joining the war in Syria in support of President Bashar Al-Assad and with Iran, along with Russia, standing firm on its support for the Damascus regime, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the other Gulf countries have become desperate to shore up international support for the rebels.
Under Rouhani, Iran is unlikely to abandon Syria due to international pressure or as a bargain aimed at relaxing the sanctions. Rouhani will continue the policies of Ahmadinejad with regard to Syria and Hezbollah. But Rouhani has indicated that he will extend the olive branch to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States in a bid to allay their fears in keeping with the policies of President Khatami, his mentor.
“We are not only neighbours, we are brothers. We have had very close relations, culturally, historically and regionally,” Rouhani said of Saudi Arabia after the election victory.
These words of endearment have been uttered by Ahmadinejad and other presidents since the Islamic revolution in 1979. Such words have little bearing on Saudi Arabia, a staunch ally of the US, which in turn is the patron ally of Israel that commits crimes against humanity in occupied Palestine.