x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Rowhani win is a chance for US to improve Tehran ties

Election of a moderate president gives Obama administration room for manoeuvre.

NEW YORK // The surprise victory of a moderate candidate in Iran's presidential elections presents Barack Obama's administration with its greatest opportunity yet to engage Tehran over its nuclear programme, analysts said.

Hassan Rowhani, a former nuclear negotiator who has offered concessions in past talks, said during his election campaign that he favoured a de-escalation of Iran's conflict with the West.

"It will give Washington an opportunity to operate on the assumption that this is a new era in Iran - whether it is or not - and test the waters," said Geneive Abdo, an expert with the Stimson Center think tank in Washington.

Ms Abdo said Mr Rowhani's victory would "change the political environment" in Washington and "make it much harder to demonise Iran, much more difficult for conservatives to say 'more sanctions', 'don't engage'".

The outgoing president, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, "basically put Obama in a corner with no opportunity whatsoever to even suggest compromises with Iran", she said.

The former British foreign secretary, Jack Straw, who dealt with Mr Rowhani during nuclear negotiations between 2003 and 2005, described him as a "very experienced diplomat and politician".

"What this huge vote of confidence in Doctor Rowhani appears to show is a hunger by the Iranian people to break away from the arid and self-defeating approach of the past and for more constructive relations with the West," he said.

"On a personal level I found him warm and engaging.

"He is a strong Iranian patriot and he was tough but fair to deal with and was always on top of his brief."

Decision-making on foreign policy, the analysts cautioned, still lies with Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei.

But with the pragmatic Mr Rowhani as president, Mr Khamanei, whose leadership has faced growing anger over Iran's faltering economy and harsh US sanctions, may be emboldened to offer concessions in future nuclear negotiations if he has a "fall guy" for "a deal that the leader wishes to disavow", the Brookings Institution Iran analyst Suzanne Maloney said yesterday.

Crucially, Ms Abdo said, any new tack in diplomacy with Iran will be less constrained by hawks in America's most important Middle East ally, Israel. "It will make [Obama] much more resilient to Israeli pressure to, say, launch an attack on Iran, and that's very important," she said.

In Israel, moderates were buoyed by the news of Mr Rowhani's unexpected win, with hopes that the regional rivals could "turn a new leaf", said Yaron Ezrahi, professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

"The entire Israeli public is praying for the election of moderate leadership that will restore the traditional bonds between Iran and Israel as states that can contribute immensely to the stabilisation of the Middle East," he added.

Conservative hardliners in both the US and Israel appeared to be dismayed by Mr Rowhani's election and what appeared to be a free and fair election, fearing that Iran's image could be rehabilitated in the international community.

"A Rowhani win … would be a big blow to Bibi Netanyahu. Much tougher to isolate Iran with a smooth talking moderate president," said Karim Sajadpour, an Iran expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Daniel Pipes, a prominent American pro-Israel neoconservative, said that he wanted "the worst of the candidates" to win in Iran. "It's better to have an aggressive Saeed Jalili than a sweet talking Hassan Rowhani," Mr Pipes wrote.

With Washington becoming openly involved in the Syrian civil war, after announcing it will arm some rebel factions, Iran's role as Syria's staunchest Middle Eastern ally will also influence any outreach to Tehran.

Despite Mr Rowhani's campaign statements in support of new elections in Syria, Ms Abdo expects no changes to Iran's current policy of supporting the government of Bashar Al Assad.

Iran's influence in the Arab world depends on it, and "Syria for Iran is non-negotiable. There will be no change in Iran's Syria policy," she said.

tkhan@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by Hugh Naylor