19 Jun 2013

Iran’s new president – the key questions

International Editor

Channel 4 News International Editor Lindsey Hilsum and a panel of experts consider how Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s new president, will change his country, the Middle East, and relations with the west.

Channel 4 News International Editor Lindsey Hilsum and a panel of experts consider how Hassan Rohani, Iran's new president, will change his country, the Middle East, and relations with the west.

On 17 June I chaired a discussion on Iran at Chatham House, writes Lindsey Hilsum. The three experts – Ali Ansari of St Andrew’s University, Sharam Chubin of the Carnegie Endowment and Arshin Adib-Moghaddam of Soas – were optimistic about the new president, Hassan Rouhani, and what he might do.


Why was Mr Rouhani allowed to win?

Everyone agreed that this was a genuine election that reflected the will of the Iranian people, unlike in 2009 when the poll was rigged in favour of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

So why was Mir-Hossein Moussavi, the moderate/reformist/insider candidate in 2009 not allowed to win, while Hassan Rouhani, the moderate/reformist/insider candidate in 2013, was?

The answer is time, pain and experience. The experiment in interfering with the poll went badly, with massive demonstrations and huge violence against protesters. Iran is now under sanctions, the economy is in dire straits, people are unemployed, and hundreds of political prisoners remain in gaol.

This election provided a safety valve, an opportunity for a new economic policy and an opening for diplomacy so sanctions might be eased.

What’s his first test?

At spontaneous demonstrations celebrating in Mr Rouhani’s win, people were shouting for the release of political prisoners and for the lifting of the house arrest imposed on Mir-Hossein Moussavi and the other liberal 2009 candidate, Mehi Karroubi.

According to Professor Ansari, if the new President Rouhani can liberate those two, that will be a sign that he can improve human rights and usher in a new, more liberal era.


Will Mr Rouhani change policy on Syria?

Probably not. Dr Adib-Moghaddam pointed out that Iran has strategic reasons for backing President Assad. First is the fear of an extremist Sunni regime, akin to the Taliban, taking over and making Shia Iran its number one enemy.

Iran often feels isolated in the region, and losing Assad would make it more so. But Mr Rouhani may try to improve relations with Saudi Arabia, which would have an impact on Syria.

What about Israel?

In his first press conference Mr Rouhani referred to the Jewish state as “Israel“. That’s a big deal. Not the “Zionist entity” or any other term of reference or abuse that negates Israel’s existence.

Interestingly, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has already warned against the west placing too much faith in the new president – after all, the supreme leader retains ultimate power.

That’s true, but Netanyahu never dismissed threats from the antagonistic Ahmadinejad on the grounds that he had no power. Mr Rouhani may deprive Mr Netanyahu of a convenient larger-than-life enemy.


Will President Rouhani change on Iran’s nuclear policy?

Again, probably not, but the tone of diplomacy is likely to alter. Dr Chubin pointed out that in 2003, when Mr Rouhani was chief nuclear negotiator, Iran suspended uranium enrichment for six months. This was a concession to make space for negotiations.

The problem is the supreme leader who “who believes that compromise is the slippery slope towards challenging the regime’s existence”. But Mr Rouhani will change the belligerent language of his predecessor, and in diplomacy language is key.

What should the west do?

All three panelists believed that western governments should be open to any overtures made by the new Iranian president. Maybe the UK could start discussions on reopening its embassy.

It’s essential to include Iran on regional issues including Afghanistan and Bahrain as well as Syria. Some sanctions could be lifted if nuclear talks progress well.

No-one should expect massive change, but skilled proactive diplomacy could lead to compromise on the nuclear issue and better relations all round.