Rouhani has pledged to bridge the divide between conservatives and reformists, and if his past record is any indication, he is well positioned to do so.
With the backing of former presidents Mohammad Khatami and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Rouhani will have a powerful mandate to improve Iran’s international relations and attempt to negotiate a settlement of Iran’s nuclear activities.
“Rouhani is, as we say in Persian, more bazaari than resistance, meaning he’s more a dealmaker than a rigid ideologue,” said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iranian American and analyst for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington think tank. “It’s true that Iran’s existing foreign policy principles are pretty entrenched, but he may be able to impact them, at a minimum tactically.”
For Obama and his national security team, Rouhani represents “the best hope for detente with Iran,” he said.
Often referred to as the “diplomat sheik” in Iranian media, Rouhani led Iran’s nuclear negotiating efforts from 2003 to 2005, resigning the post after Ahmadinejad became president.
Rouhani has since been a harsh critic of Ahmadinejad’s economic and foreign policy.
Even before all the votes were counted, U.S. officials and Iran experts were seeing Rouhani’s strong showing as a positive development that could lead to a thaw in relations between Washington and Tehran. The moderate cleric has called publicly for ending Iran’s diplomatic isolation, telling a crowd at one campaign stop last week, “I’ll pursue a policy of reconciliation and peace.”
Rouhani’s late surge in the polls surprised many Washington observers, coming at the end of a lackluster campaign that appeared to have been tightly scripted to give an edge to conservatives close to Khamenei.
Ray Takeyh, a former State Department adviser and Middle East expert, said the results probably “even surprised Rouhani,” who appears to have been an unexpected beneficiary of pent-up resentments among Iranians after years of political repression and the recent economic hardships brought on by Western sanctions.
“This was supposed to be a well-regulated, well-crafted election, and then the wheels came off,” Takeyh said. “It appears that the leadership miscalculated on Rouhani’s appeal and also miscalculated on the ineptness of its preferred candidates and the impact of the divisions among the conservative coalition.”
Current and former administration officials have been cautious in predicting how the election would affect Iran’s nuclear policies, which are controlled primarily by Khamenei and the elite Revolutionary Guard Corps. But some said a landslide for Rouhani could force the country’s religious leaders to shift policies that have subjected Iran to international censure and harsh economic sanctions.
Rouhani probably will bring with him a cadre of more moderate diplomats, technocrats and nuclear negotiators who favor a more pragmatic foreign policy, said Trita Parsi, author of “A Single Roll of the Dice,” a book on the Obama administration’s dealings with Iran.
But whether the political shift leads to a deal to restrain Iran’s nuclear program depends on many factors, much outside the control of Iran’s new president, Parsi said.
“Ultimately the ball comes back to our side of the court,” Parsi said. “Neither side can break this impasse alone.”
Warrick reported from Washington.