Cordial and Conciliatory, Iran's Rowhani Vows to Continue Enriching Uranium

Islamic Republic's new president may take a more moderate tone than his predecessor, but his words don't reflect a meaningful shift in policy.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Barely 48 hours had passed since his impressive victory at the polls was announced, and Iranian President-elect Hasan Rowhani did not waste a moment. On Sunday he met with the country's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the Speaker of the Majlis (parliament), Ali Larijani. On Monday he held his first press conference since Friday's election, and in between made a great many reassuring remarks in interviews and official statements.

After declaring his victory “a victory of moderation over extremism,” Rowhani held out a hand to nearby Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia, whose relations with Iran are near breaking point. He said he sought to “improve relations with all neighboring countries," adding, “The Gulf states are not only neighbors but also brothers, especially Saudi Arabia.”

The president-elect made promises to the reform-minded voters who elected him: “We will rebuild the economy rapidly. We will listen to the people’s voices in all spheres and develop culture and education.”

Responding at length to reporters' questions about the possibility of detente with the United States, Rowhani said that any dialogue with Washington “must be based on equality and mutual respect" and on the recognition of Iran’s rights, including its "nuclear rights" in accordance with the international agreements to which it is a signatory.

Rowhani’s measured, moderate tone and the absence of the arrogance and stridency that characterized the speeches of the outgoing president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, are a positive sign. But hard evidence pointing to a meaningful shift in Iranian policy is nonexistent. Rowhani has stressed that Iran will not halt its uranium enrichment programs, but he has not specified whether it will enrich above 20 percent, whether the quantity of enriched uranium will be restricted or how he intends to reassure the West about his country's nuclear ambitions. He has promised “greater transparency” with regard to Iran's nuclear program, but he has not offered to allow international inspectors into the military facility at Parchin or to submit additional information to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Yet Rowhani has reminded journalists that when he was Iran's top nuclear negotiator with the West, from 2003-2005, a diplomatic solution to the nuclear issue was nearly achieved. He has even said that negotiations are the key to achieving results in this area, and that Iran was willing to continue the intensive dialogue to resolve the crisis. Similar statements were made during Ahmadinejad’s presidency, however, without resulting in any change.

It is interesting that one of the important figures with whom Rowhani met this week was Saeed Jalili, Khamenei’s national security adviser and Iran's chief nuclear negotiator. Jalili said after the meeting that he had offered to help Rowhani in his new position in any way possible. Rowhani might not want advice from Jalili, who ran against him in the presidential election, but he won't have much choice: Jalili is Khamenei’s appointee, and for now he will continue to conduct the talks with the West.

Rowhani's greatest challenge will be building support in the main centers of power: Khamenei’s bureau, the Majlis and the religious centers. Rowhani is not a top-rank religious scholar, but he is no stranger to the corridors of power and is well-versed in internal politics. His experience as national security adviser and nuclear negotiator should also serve him well. According to several reports, he also served as a personal diplomatic envoy to Khamenei.

According to an opinion piece by Hossein Shariatmadari, managing editor of Kayhan, a conservative Iranian newspaper closely associated with Khamenei, Rowhani can expect to face a number of potentially explosive political issues. “Not only is Rowhani not obliged to the reformists,” Shariatmadari wrote, the reformists are indebted to Rowhani for the opportunity "to come to the political stage.”

No broader hint from someone so close to Khamenei is needed to convey that Rowhani will be expected to toe the line — in other words, to avoid getting politically close to his mentor, Hashemi Rafsanjani, Khamenei’s rival.

On Sunday Rowhani described the election result as “the beginning of a new era.” The reformists are waiting to see how he will translate that idea into reality, who he will pick for his cabinet and how he will rebuild Iran's economy. Rowhani's conservative extremist rivals are waiting just around the corner, anticipating his failure.

The United States is willing to give the new president some credit, as are the European states. Israel, predictably, sees a plot behind every clerical turban, black or white, and fears that Rowhani may charm U.S. President Barack Obama. So far he's been playing middle-of-the-road music, bland offerings meant to please everyone and offend no one.

Nevertheless, like any new leader Rowhani deserves his 100-day grace period.

Hasan Rowhani flashing the victory sign after leaving a polling station in Tehran, June 14, 2013.Credit: AFP

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