In what the New York Times called “a striking repudiation of the ultraconservatives who wield power in Iran,” Iranians elected a “mild-mannered cleric,” Hassan Rouhani, as their next president. It is still unclear what impact Rouhani’s election will have on Iran’s foreign policy, both because Rouhani is not part of the reformist camp and because Iran’s political system is ultimately controlled by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. Rouhani has promised greater transparency on Iran’s nuclear program and indicated he seeks better relations with Washington, calling the animosity between the U.S. and Iran “an old wound that must be treated.”
U.S. and other world leaders reacted to the results with hope and skepticism. Some simply congratulated the president-elect, while others focused on the consequences of Rouhani’s victory.
Leaders throughout the Middle East, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Turkey, offered official congratulations to President-Elect Rouhani. Beyond formal congratulations, Reuters notes that many expressed cautious hope that Rouhani’s election would signal a more moderate shift in Iran’s relations with the region, while others expressed doubt that Iranian policy would change.
In Bahrain, where leaders claim that Iran supports anti-government protests, the Information Minister said: “I think Rouhani is one of a team… We have no more trust in the Iranian regime after what happened in Bahrain.”
Similarly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned the international community not to indulge in “wishful thinking” and urged them to continue to pressure Iran to halt its nuclear program. In contrast, President Shimon Peres voiced optimism that Rouhani “will not go for these extreme policies” regarding Iran’s nuclear activities.
On Sunday, Syrian Prime Minister Wael Al-Halqi wished “to further expand relations with the new Iranian leadership” in an unsurprising show of support. Similarly, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah publicly congratulated Rouhani on Sunday. Iran is viewed by many as one of the Syrian government’s biggest supporters, providing President Assad with weapons and possibly Revolutionary Guard-trained fighters. Meanwhile, the Syrian National Coalition urged Rouhani to “rectify the mistakes” Iran has made with respect to the Syrian conflict, though other opposition members publicly doubted that Iran’s newly elected president could undertake meaningful foreign policy change.
Reactions from Arab commentators on Rouhani’s election were equally mixed, expressing both cautious optimism and deep skepticism about the vote’s significance.
Members of the Egyptian public appeared hostile to the new president and to Iran more generally, with comments ranging from “All Iranians are the same” to “all Egyptians hate Iran after what has happened in Syria,” referring to Iran’s support for Assad.
Conflicting media reactions were particularly evident among Gulf news outlets. Abdulrahman al-Rashed of al Arabiya highlighted Rouhani’s role in improving relations with Saudi Arabia throughout the 1990s, despite warning that since then Saudi Arabia has confronted Iran on a number of regional security issues. Al-Rashed concluded, “We are aware that Rouhani himself cannot make a new Iran because a strong inner circle made up of the Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guards governs the country. But the new president may have the capability to alter the mentality of Iran’s leadership towards avoiding partly inevitable clashes.”
The Emirate newspaper Gulfnews.com also noted the divergent perspectives among analysts from the Gulf. Bahraini media analyst Fareed Ahmad Rassan expressed hope that some positive change might result from the election, saying, “I am confident that, thanks to his new status as the country’s president and to his high-profile experience, he can succeed both internally and externally.” Others were more pessimistic: Al Sharq al Awsat’s Tariq Al Hameed stated, “A president, regardless of how moderate he is, cannot do much under this system and the domination of the Revolutionary Guards.”
The U.S. Response:
In immediate statements following the announcement of the election results, both Secretary of State John Kerry and President Barack Obama congratulated the Iranian people for their courage in making their voices heard and reiterated that “[the U.S.], along with our international partners, remain ready to engage directly with the Iranian government.” In an interview with PBS’s Charlie Rose, President Obama later remarked, “The Iranian people rebuffed the hardliners and the clerics in the election who were counseling no compromise on anything, anytime, anywhere… Clearly you have a hunger within Iran to engage with the international community in a more positive way.”
Despite these positive overtures, U.S. policymakers have also voiced their hesitations about Rouhani’s victory. During a hearing on the elections in Iran, most members of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa seconded Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s views that the elections were “just a victory for the Supreme Leader and the regime” and “anything but free and fair,” voicing strong concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.
This post was co-written by Leslie Adkins and Daniel Resnick