The Iranian cleric Hasan Rouhani has been elected as the fifth president of the Islamic Republic of Iran. In a peaceful election with a high 72 per cent voter turnout, Rouhani won slightly over 50 per cent of the votes in the first round itself. His nearest rival, Tehran mayor Qalibaf, won only 18 per cent. Rouhani had the support of two ex-presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami. This helped increase his popularity.
In contrast to the 2009 elections which brought millions of protesters into the streets, Iranians this time have celebrated the victory of Hasan Rouhani. Many reformist newspapers in Iran have hailed Rouhani’s victory as a mandate for reform. Hard-line conservative newspapers have interpreted the high turnout and smooth election as reaffirmation of the people’s continuing faith in the Iranian Islamic system.
Rouhani is described as a moderate cleric. He has been close to supreme leaders Khomeini and Khamenei. That helped in his rapid rise in the Iranian establishment. He has studied in Tehran University as well as Glasgow Caledonian University and is fluent in English.
Rouhani has served in the assembly of experts of Iran and the expediency council. He was the chief negotiator on nuclear issues under Khatami. It was during his watch as nuclear negotiator that Iran suspended its uranium enrichment for two years.
Rouhani has described his election as victory of “moderation over extremism”. During poll campaigns he spoke of “rationality and moderation” in policies. On the nuclear issue he was cautious calling for “national consensus and rapprochement and understanding on an international level…through dialogue”. He called for a “change of direction in order to turn a new page” on ties with the US. And he expressed Iran’s desire to play a mediator’s role between the Syrian government and the Opposition. His willingness to avoid extremist positions has earned him the label of a moderate. But it may be noted that he is also asking the other side to avoid extreme positions and accord equal respect and recognition to Iran.
The reaction in the West has been cautious but can be adjudged to be mildly positive. There is a desire to engage with the new leader. Russia has congratulated the new president. A White House statement mentions that the US is prepared to talk directly with Iran. France has expressed desire to work with Iran. Israel has noted that it will judge the new president by his deeds and warned that pressure on Iran to stop its nuclear programme should not be eased. The West will await Rouhani to spell out his policies beyond the campaign rhetoric.
Rouhani’s election is likely to bring out some change in Iran’s policies. But one has to be cautious and not have too high expectations. As president, he has limited room for manoeuvre on issues of national security and nuclear programme. The supreme leader has total control on these issues. Khatami, the most reformist of the presidents, spoke during his two tenures of a dialogue of civilisations, moderation and reform but could achieve little in the end. He was hailed in the West but proved to be ineffective domestically. Rouhani will have to learn his lessons from Khatami’s experience.
The supreme leader has said time and again that Iran is not developing a nuclear weapon but it will not give up its right to enrichment. Reports suggest Iran may have crossed the 20 per cent uranium enrichment red line or is very close to crossing it. It means Iran can rapidly build a pile of weapons-grade uranium. This worries the international community. The West will demand from Rouhani greater transparency on Iran’s nuclear programme.
For India Rouhani’s election may turn out to be a positive development. He is no stranger to India, having visited in 2002 and 2004 as the chief of the Iranian Security Council. He had held talks with then national security adviser Brajesh Mishra and called on then prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. Iran had then asked for deepening of bilateral relations with India including in the defence sector, but India was not ready.
In 2003, India hosted Khatami as the chief guest for the Republic Day parade. But in recent years India-Iran relations have slowed down. This is mainly because of the changed geopolitical scenario. India has moved closer to the US and even voted against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Iran is under severe international economic sanctions. India is compelled to comply with the UN sanctions. Several Indian companies with business links in Europe and the US are also affected by the sanctions. India’s import of oil from Iran has also reduced. There are serious issues of payments for imported oil because few banks are ready to transfer the money for fear of sanctions.
There cannot be much change in India’s principled position on the Iranian nuclear issue — Iran has the right to enrichment but it should fulfil its obligations under the international treaties it has signed. India should encourage Iran and the US to engage with each other and oppose any military action against Iran. The West should be persuaded to ease sanctions on Iran.
In order to seek access to Central Asia and Afghanistan, India has decided to invest in the strategic port of Chabahar in Iran. This should be followed up vigorously. PM Manmohan Singh had visited Iran in 2012 and met the supreme leader. External affairs minister Salman Khurshid visited Tehran earlier this year. These should be followed up.
The two countries should discuss the post-2014 scenario in Afghanistan. The aim should be to revitalise India-Iran ties quickly as the new president takes charge. High-level contacts with Iran should be stepped up.
These are early days. The world will watch for shifts in Iran’s policies. Rouhani’s first priority will be to have the sanctions eased for some respite for the people. Iran may adopt a more flexible negotiating stance and be more co-operative with the IAEA inspectors. It will give second wind to the negotiations though a resolution of the impasse is not expected. More flexibility on the nuclear issue may lead to easing of sanctions.
Hasan Rouhani’s election has raised hopes of change within and outside Iran. Rouhani has indicated that he would work towards ending Iran’s isolation. It will not be easy but the international community should extend a helping hand. India can play a role in this regard.
The author is Director General, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses;