Iranians celebrated into yesterday after moderate cleric Hassan Rowhani was elected as Iran’s new president in a popular repudiation of conservative hardliners and he pledged a new tone of respect in Tehran’s international affairs after years of increasing antagonism.
Rowhani, a Shiite cleric and former chief nuclear negotiator, received a resounding mandate for change from Iranians weary of years of economic decline under UN and Western sanctions and security clampdowns on dissent.
His victory goes some way to repairing the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic, punctured four years ago when an election marred by fraud allegations led to mass unrest, and may give leverage for reformist voices muzzled since then to re-emerge.
Rowhani said during his campaign that he was ready to hold bilateral talks with Washington on Tehran’s nuclear program, “difficult” as that would be after decades of enmity.
He has also offered to restore diplomatic ties with the US, which cut relations in the aftermath of the 1979 seizure of the US embassy by Islamist students.
High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton, who acts as chief negotiator for the Western powers involved in current nuclear talks, said she was committed to working with Rowhani to find a “swift diplomatic solution.”
Yet the hopeful reaction abroad was tempered by skepticism that Rowhani could overcome the mistrust and alienation prevailing between Tehran and much of the world, and Israel warned against complacency on Iran’s quest for nuclear power.
“The international community must not give in to wishful thinking or temptation and loosen the pressure on Iran for it to stop its nuclear program,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.
He added that it was Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, not the Iranian president, who set nuclear policy. Israel and the West fear Iran is enriching uranium with the aim of developing nuclear arms, an accusation Tehran denies.
“The working assumption should be that Khamenei, who has been heading this for 24 years, will continue to head it,” Israeli Minister of Intelligencer Yuval Steinitz told Israeli army radio.
Israel has not ruled out a military strike to prevent Iran developing a rival arsenal.
Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed confidence that Rowhani’s presidency would “further strengthen Russian-Iranian relations,” the Kremlin said.
The Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah, an ally of Tehran, also welcomed the election of Rowhani calling him a “beacon of hope.”
“The Arab and Muslim people ... and every fighter who resists for God, consider you today a beacon of hope,” the group said.
Rowhani’s surprise win will not resolve anytime soon the row with the West over Iran’s nuclear ambitions or lessen its support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the civil war there as matters of national security are decided by Khamenei.
However, the Iranian president runs the economy and has important influence on decisionmaking and Iranians clearly felt change was essential after eight years of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a belligerent, populist hardliner associated with mismanagement, waste and repression.
“This victory is a victory of wisdom, a victory of moderation, a victory of growth and awareness and a victory of commitment over extremism and ill-temper,” Rowhani told state television, promising to work for all Iranians, including the hardliners he defeated at the poll.
He told state news agency IRNA, “the country’s problems won’t be solved overnight and this needs to happen gradually and with consultation with experts,” but added that there was a new chance “in the international arena” for “those who truly respect democracy and cooperation and free negotiation.”
The US said it stood ready to engage with Iran to reach a “diplomatic solution” over its nuclear program, even though, like Israel, it has refused to rule out military strikes against Iranian nuclear sites.
“We respect the vote of the Iranian people and congratulate them for their participation in the political process and their courage in making their voices heard,” the White House said in a statement.
Celebrating crowds sprang up across Tehran and other major cities as his victory was confirmed.
“Long live reform! Long live Rowhani!” the crowds chanted.
Rowhani is inheriting an economy that has been badly hit by EU and US sanctions.
He has pledged to tackle the problems by taking a more constructive approach with the major powers that might lead to an easing of sanctions.