x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Iranian voters open the way to new beginning

The election of Hassan Rowhani as Iran's president may be a moment of opportunity for the country.

The last time Iran went to the polls, in 2009, the allegations of vote fraud and the subsequent mass protests turned into a show of bloody repression. Many in Iran's reformist movement still refer to that 2009 vote as a "stolen" election.

This time, however, the presidential election has passed off without incident. And yet under Iran's unique political system, which marries elements of democracy with clerical rule, all six candidates had been vetted by the clerical establishment.

This guaranteed that even the nominally reformist candidate was fully acceptable to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Hosseini Khamenei. The vetting narrowed Iran's political spectrum to a few shades of one colour.

As it happened, that relative reformer, Hassan Rowhani, took more than half of the vote on Friday, and so avoids a run-off election; he will take office on August 3.

But under the circumstances this result, a clear expression of the popular will, may create a moment of opportunity. While Iran's nuclear programme is a matter of solid consensus among the country's rulers - including Mr Rowhani - there may still be opportunities for compromise with the rest of the world on the issue. But will Iran seize them?

Iran has a role in some of the toughest challenges that the region faces. Its influence is strong in many countries: in Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon, there are groups over whom the Iranian establishment can exert substantial influence.

In two of the most complex regional issues - rebuilding Iraq and ending the conflict in Syria - Iran is openly meddling. No political solution can come in either country without Iran's involvement. Elsewhere, the long-running state of tension between the two worst meddlers in the Middle East, Israel and Iran, looks unlikely to change. Similarly with the occupation by Iran of three of the UAE's islands.

Iran's isolation has bred a truculence that grates on its neighbours, but that is now innate. So there is little hope that the new president will bring change on major issues.

Despite all of Iran's policy inertia, there is cause for cautious welcoming of Mr Rowhani's victory. He could yet prove to be the face of a positive policy of engagement, with the region and the world.

As the UAE's president, Sheikh Khalifa said in a cable of congratulation, the UAE - and the region - want relations based on cooperation with Iran. Mr Rowhani's tenure will be watched closely.