Hassan Rouhani, the new President of Iran, described his unexpected election win as a “victory [for] moderation over extremism” and claimed that “a new opportunity has been created for those who truly respect democracy, interaction and free dialogue”.
Thousands of Mr Rouhani’s supporters took to the streets in the early hours of this morning to celebrate his success, calling on their new leader to deliver on his promises to repair relations with the world and support greater civil liberties at home. Mr Rouhani, Iran’s former chief nuclear negotiator who beat his hardline rivals by securing more than 50 per cent of the votes in Friday’s polls told state TV today: “With their celebrations, the Iranian people showed they are hopeful about the future, and, God willing, morals and moderation will govern the country.”
The result received a cautious welcome in Washington, where President Obama’s Chief of Staff, Denis McDonough, told CBS’s Face the Nation today that it represented a “potentially hopeful sign” – with the caveat that, should Mr Rouhani “come clean on [Iran’s} illicit nuclear programme, he will find a partner in us”. “If he is interested in mending Iran’s relations with the rest of the world, there is an opportunity to do that,” Mr McDonough said.
Earlier, the White House spokesman Jay Carney stopped short of congratulating Mr Rouhani, urging him instead to “heed the will of the Iranian people. We respect the vote of the Iranian people and congratulate them for their participation in the political process,” he added.
In Israel, the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was sceptical that Mr Rouhani’s success would bring change. “Let us not delude ourselves,” he said. “The international community must not be tempted to relax the pressure on Iran to stop its nuclear [programme]. [Rouhani] still defines the state of Israel as ‘the great Zionist Satan’.”
The minister with responsibility for Iranian issues, Yuval Steinitz, echoed Mr Netanyahu’s statement, saying that, despite the departure of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the real power in Iran – the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – would continue to dictate foreign policy.
“I doubt ... Khamenei will change his tune on military and nuclear affairs without being strongly motivated to do so by increased international economic sanctions,” he told Israeli Army Radio.
Iran maintains its nuclear programme is designed for peaceful means, something rejected by Western governments, which have imposed tough sanctions on it.
In some quarters there was a more measured response. President Shimon Peres stressed in an interview with Reuters that Mr Rouhani, a former nuclear negotiator: “will not go for these extreme policies”.
“It will be better, I am sure, and that is why the people voted for him,” he said. “[The result] surprised all the experts. Apparently there are hidden forces that were underestimated.”
One way in which Mr Rouhani could demonstrate his moderate credentials is by releasing the former opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, who have been held under house arrest since 2011. Both stood in the 2009 presidential election against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a poll they claim was rigged.
On the left in Israel there was hope that the almost certain arrival into office of Mr Rouhani will augur a change in relations. Writing in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, Yigal Sarna, a founder of the Peace Now group, said the Israeli government would have to reassess its position on Iran: “What will [Israel] do without the Persian Hitler? At whom will we fire our smart bombs and how will Bibi [Netanyahu] divert attention from the looting going on here?”
Elsewhere, the Russian President Vladimir Putin, a long-time ally of Iran, said the election result would “further strengthen” ties between the two countries, and urged the West to engage more closely with Tehran.
Winds of change?: Rouhani on the key issues
A former nuclear negotiator with the West, Mr Rouhani has a detailed knowledge of Iran’s nuclear programme but during the campaign he did encourage greater transparency: “Iran has nothing to hide. However, in order to proceed towards settling the Iranian nuclear file, we need to reach national consensus and rapprochement and understanding on an international level. This can only happen through dialogue.”
The big question that will emerge inside Iran is whether Mr Rouhani is really a liberal. In short, he isn’t. Approved by the Guardian Council to stand as a candidate, Mr Rouhani’s loyalty is guaranteed and though he may push more moderate reforms that his rivals, wholesale changes in Iran are unlikely.
Relations with the West
Iranian relations with the US are perhaps at their lowest ebb since the hostage crisis between 1979 and 1981, but Mr Rouhani, while recognising the difficulties has called for closer ties. “The relationship between Iran and the United States is a complicated and difficult question,” he says. “There is a chronic wound, which is difficult to heal. However, it is not impossible provided there is goodwill and mutual respect between the two countries.”
One election pledge that at least half of Iran’s population will be pressing Mr Rouhani to keep is greater rights for women in the country. He has pledged to establish a Ministry of Women's Affairs and give women equal rights and pay. He has also said that women who head households should get financial support.
Public hangings and the extensive use of the death penalty in Iran have become commonplace under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. There is nothing to suggest that Mr Rouhani has a more liberal stance on the use of capital punishment. In 1999, following student protests, he called for those found guilty of sabotage to be executed.
Mr Rouhani would not have been on the list of approved candidates without the support of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, although there do appear to be key policy differences between the two men. Presidents who have previously fallen out with Ayatollah Khamenei in the past, such as Mr Ahmadinejad, have found themselves frozen out.
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