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Hope grows that Iran could pull back from nuclear standoff

President-elect Hassan Rowhani has experience in avoiding nuclear sanctions and has shown his interest in easing them. He also has a good rapport with the ayatollah.

June 16, 2013|By Patrick J. McDonnell and Ramin Mostaghim, Los Angeles Times
  • Newly elected Iranian President Hassan Rowhani prays in the shrine of Iran's late supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Newly elected Iranian President Hassan Rowhani prays in the shrine of Iran's… (Abedin Taherkenareh/ European…)

BEIRUT — The surprising election of Hassan Rowhani, a moderate cleric, as Iran's president has prompted a wave of speculation about a crucial question: Will Iran's new leadership be more willing to compromise on its nuclear program?

No one knows for sure, but some Iranians express hope that Rowhani has both the credentials and the personal relationships necessary to make headway on the issue, which has wreaked havoc with Iran's international relations and led to sanctions that have all but crippled the nation's economy. Essentially, they say: If anyone can do it, he can.

"He is a moderate, he has promised to improve the economy, and he knows that one way to do that is to roll back the sanctions," said Farshad Qorbanpour, a political analyst in Tehran, the Iranian capital.

Which isn't to say that Rowhani's landslide election Saturday will ensure a departure from the hard-line position of the man he will succeed, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

"Let us not delude ourselves," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday at the start of his weekly Cabinet meeting. "The international community must not become caught up in wishes and be tempted to relax the pressure on Iran to stop its nuclear program."

Netanyahu and other skeptics point out that Iran's nuclear portfolio remains the purview not of the president, but of the nation's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whom U.S. and Israeli officials regard as a stubborn barrier to a nuclear deal. In Iran's complex theocratic system, the president's position is important, but he remains a kind of junior partner to the supreme leader, who holds veto power over major decisions of state.

In the Iranian capital, Rowhani supporters hoping for a paradigm shift in the perilous nuclear standoff — and a respite from the throttling international sanctions linked to the issue — note that Khamenei has long had a collegial relationship with Rowhani, 64, who has been a stalwart of the Islamic Republic since its founding in 1979.

"He has a good relationship with the supreme leader, so perhaps he can coax the ayatollah to be more flexible," said Qorbanpour, the analyst, who was jailed for eight months during the protests that shook the nation after the disputed presidential election four years ago.

Though not regarded as Khamenei's first choice as president, Rowhani remains one of the supreme leader's point men on a key national security panel, the Supreme National Security Council, which oversees the nuclear issue and other sensitive defense matters.

Even Khamenei has to acknowledge Rowhani's encyclopedic knowledge about the nuclear issue. The new president served for almost two years as the nation's top nuclear negotiator, and later wrote a nearly 1,000-page memoir of his service, a meticulous account that lavishes praise on Khamenei in the preface.

That personal familiarity and mutual trust, observers say, could allow for the new president to nudge Khamenei in the direction of compromise.

The current president, Ahmadinejad, has struck a consistently defiant tone about the nation's nuclear program. His polemical style is in stark contrast to the low-key, diplomatic demeanor of Rowhani, who is scheduled to assume office in August.

During the presidential campaign, Rowhani indicated clearly that he would work to ease U.S.-backed sanctions that have battered the nation's economy, making it hard to export oil (Iran's principal resource) and limiting access to the international banking system, among other restrictions. More than any other candidate, Rowhani tied the nation's economic doldrums to the sanctions regime, bringing to the forefront a linkage that was previously somewhat taboo.

"Certain people in this country are proud of themselves for bringing sanctions on us and are proud of themselves for bringing poverty," Rowhani said in a telling comment last week at a boisterous rally in Tehran.

That was a verbal shot across the bow of conservative hard-liners such as Saeed Jalili, the Iran-Iraq war veteran who has served as the nation's chief nuclear negotiator in recent years, earning a reputation as being compromise-averse. During the final presidential debate, Jalili, who was also a candidate, was assailed as being "inflexible and stubborn" by another presidential hopeful, Ali Akbar Velayati, none other than the supreme leader's top foreign policy advisor. For many Iranians, it was the first indication of high-level discord about the handling of the nuclear negotiations with Western and other nations.

Jalili, once a presumed presidential front-runner, ultimately finished a distant third, an indication perhaps that voters were also not impressed at his lack of progress in easing sanctions.

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