Hope grows that Iran could pull back from nuclear standoff


BEIRUT — The surprising election of Hassan Rowhani, a moderate cleric, as Iran’s president has prompted a wave of speculation about a critical 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.

“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.

“The international community must not become caught up in wishes and be tempted to relax the pressure on Iran to stop its nuclear program,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday.

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, 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 following the disputed presidential election four years ago.

While 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 adviser. 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.

For his part, Rowhani can point to an almost two-year period during his stewardship of the nuclear dossier, from 2003-2005, when Iran did agree to suspend uranium enrichment, in large part to avoid economic and political sanctions or other punitive actions by the West. His supporters say the move points to his pragmatist approach to foreign policy and other matters.

Still, Rowhani has made it clear that he remains committed to Iran obtaining nuclear capability, albeit for what he calls peaceful means.

“The United States and its allies should abandon their deception of manufacturing new enemies and portraying Iran and its exclusively peaceful nuclear program as a threat,” Rowhani wrote in an email interview with Asharq al Awsat, a pan-Arab newspaper, a few days before the election. “Serious, balanced and time-bound negotiations aimed at resolving clearly defined questions and concerns by both sides can play an effective role in resolving this artificially manufactured crisis.”

U.S. officials suspect that Iran is clandestinely trying to reach the capacity to build an atomic weapon. The Obama administration says it has not ruled out any action, including a military attack, to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Iran says its nuclear program is exclusively for civilian uses such as energy generation and treatment of cancer.

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In the wake of Rowhani’s election, a sense of urgency is evident in the discourse of many average Iranians about the need to revive an economy battered by galloping inflation, high unemployment and a collapsing currency. There is a sense that drastic change is needed, especially to ease the situation for Iran’s many young, highly educated job seekers. Iranians watch as their compatriots in the United States and elsewhere thrive, but they struggle to pay the bills. The presidential campaign appears to have galvanized for many the connection between Iran’s nuclear program, sanctions and the nation’s woeful financial predicament.

“We need less sanctions and more jobs and more investment to create jobs — those are our priorities,” said Kamaran Saadat, 60, a civil engineer in the capital. “Forget about individual freedoms or social freedoms, we do not need that urgently. We need to avoid war or any confrontation with the United States or others.”

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On Sunday, Amene Saeedi, a bookkeeper in Tehran, recalled how an elderly neighborhood shopkeeper who habitually teases her for being too Westernized had suddenly changed his tune. “My dear daughter, we have to have reconciliation with the world,” the shopkeeper told Saeedi, 31. “The world is like a family. We cannot be on non-speaking terms with another member.”

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The White House seems guarded about the possibility that Iran’s new president could bring progress to long-stalled nuclear talks. But U.S. officials say they are willing to listen.

“If he (Rowhani) lives up to his obligations under the U.N. Security Council resolution to come clean on this illicit nuclear program, he will find a partner in us,” White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said Sunday on “Face the Nation.” “But to get to that point, we need him to live up to the obligations on the nuclear program.”

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(Special correspondent Mostaghim reported from Tehran. Times staff writer Neela Banerjee in Washington and news assistant Batsheva Sobleman in the Times’ Jerusalem bureau contributed to this report.)

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GRAPHIC (from MCT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20130617 Iran Rowhani