Give Rowhani a Chance

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The prime minister was right when he suggested both to the West and to himself not to get caught up in wishful thinking now that a new Iranian president, Hassan Rowhani, has been elected. It’s also the advice that the reformers in Iran, who elected him, are giving to themselves.

This is not just because the structure of the Iranian regime and the ultimate authority of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will determine far more about Iran’s nuclear moves than will the president. It’s because the development of nuclear technology is a foundation of Iran’s national pride and prestige, and the desire to advance it crosses movements and ideologies.

But Rowhani’s election is liable to change the quality of Iran’s discourse with the West. It also testifies to the power of the public, which is sick of the economic crisis, the radicalism that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his ilk represent, and the repression of human rights.

This turning point, the likes of which occurred in Iran 16 years ago with the election of President Mohammad Khatami, was the work of the younger generation, most of which was born into the Islamic revolution but is distancing itself from religion and ideological devotion, and wants a prosperous future in its own country.

These aspirations, along with terrible hardship imposed by the world’s economic sanctions on Iran, brought about the political upheaval that is not hidden from the eyes of the supreme leader.

Sustaining the regime, which depends on the ability of the new president and the government he appoints to get the sanctions lifted, is not detached from the nuclear issue. But if until now Western diplomats felt they were banging their heads against a fortified wall and facing a stream of belligerent and threatening rhetoric that turned Iran into a real danger, diplomacy may now have a better chance.

Rowhani, who defined his victory as a triumph of moderation over extremism; who in the past, and during his campaign, supported a direct dialogue with the United States; and who will now be under pressure from voters to make good on his promises of economic recovery, seems to seriously intend to resolve the crisis. Unfortunately, he has many powerful rivals who will try to foil him.

Suspicion and distrust of Iran’s intentions are the result of long and bitter experience, but there is no reason to decide at this point that Iranian policy will not change. Furthermore, building trust requires both Iran and the West to make a diplomatic effort to win that trust, and it is on those efforts that both sides will be judged.

The Iranian people are not an enemy of Israel or the West. Rowhani’s voters, who demonstrated their political power, should be extended some credit. Israel is not required to act naive, but it must not undermine the chances for diplomacy, either.

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

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