Iranians Count on President-Elect Rowhani to Bring Change

DUBAI (Reuters) -
Iranian supporters of presidential candidate Hassan Rowhani celebrate his victory in downtown Tehran. (BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images)
Iranian supporters of presidential candidate Hassan Rowhani celebrate his victory in downtown Tehran. (BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images)

Iranian president-elect Hassan Rowhani, who won a landslide victory promising better relations abroad and more freedom at home, on Sunday paid his first visit since the vote to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who will ultimately decide the pace of any change.

Rowhani, a mid-ranking Shiite cleric, is an Islamic Republic insider who has held senior political and military posts since the 1979 Islamic revolution and maintained a good rapport with Khamenei, Iran’s most powerful man.

Iranian media reported that Khamenei congratulated Rowhani, wished him success, and gave him “the necessary guidance.”

Rowhani’s trouncing of his hardline rivals, who miscalculated the public mood and failed to overcome factional differences and field a single candidate, received a cautious welcome in Washington, although Israel warned against “wishful thinking” about Iran’s future direction.

While no reformer himself, Rowhani gained the backing of the politically sidelined but still popular leaders of the reform movement. His call for an end to an “era of extremism” won over many voters tired of the economic crises and crackdowns on free speech that marked Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency.

However, Rowhani’s surprise win, with just over 50 percent of the vote, is not expected quickly to resolve Tehran’s nuclear stand-off with the West or break its commitment to backing President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s civil war.

President Barack Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, said: “If [Rowhani] is interested in, as he has said in his campaign, mending Iran’s relations with the rest of the world, there is an opportunity to do that.”

Known in the West

Rowhani’s win goes some way toward repairing the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic, punctured four years ago when dozens were killed in protests after an election that reformists said was rigged, and may help pragmatic voices silenced since then to re-emerge.

Known in the West as Iran’s main nuclear negotiator in 2003-05, Rowhani immediately sought to build bridges, expressing approval of the street parties that welcomed his election but also having talks with the conservative speaker of parliament.

Whether Rowhani succeeds in ushering in change will hinge on his ability to balance the demands and expectations of the people with the interests of those who hold the main levers of power.

Rowhani may have an advantage that Khatami, director of the national library before becoming president, never enjoyed.

“Rowhani is the ultimate regime insider. In contrast to Khatami, who held no governmental position when he was catapulted into the presidency, Rowhani has never been out of power or Khamenei’s good graces,” said Ali Vaez, Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group.

“Also, Rowhani is a centrist politician with a unique bridge-building ability. He is unlikely to alienate competing power centers, who can stymie his reforms.”

Rowhani himself called for patience soon after his win was announced on Saturday. “The country’s problems won’t be solved overnight. This needs to happen gradually,” he told the state news agency IRNA.

But Rowhani, whose conciliatory style contrasts with the confrontational populism of Ahmadinejad, said there was a new chance “in the international arena for … those who truly respect democracy and cooperation and free negotiation.”