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Hassan Rouhani’s election as Iranian president to soften dialogue between Iran and West

24.06.2013, 11:16 Copy text | Print | E-mail

Hassan Rouhani, a candidate with the Combatant Clergy Association party, who promised to normalize relations with the West, won the presidential race in Iran in the first round of voting, held on 14 June 2013.

According to Senior Fellow for Regional Security Cooperation of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Middle East Michael Elleman, the election of Hassan Rouhani is a refreshing moment for Iran and for the whole world.

“Hassan Rouhani is a conservative, but relative to the other candidates he can be viewed as moderate. While he has historically not been among the reformist elements in Iranian politics, I believe he is capable of moving Iran forward, on a more progressive path. But perhaps more importantly, his margin of victory over his more conservative opponents must frighten the established leaders, including the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, because the people repudiated through the ballot box the ultra-conservative agenda,” the expert said in an interview with news agency “PenzaNews.”

In his opinion, Hassan Rouhani’s words about increasing the transparency of Iran’s nuclear program suggest that he will seek reconciliation with the world.

“I believe he is sincere in his stated goal of integrating Iran into the international community; he does not want Iran to be so isolated. However, to make significant changes in foreign policy he will need the support, or at least acquiescence of the Supreme Leader. Will Rouhani receive it? Time will tell. But the real test will come in the fall, when negotiations with the P5+1 begin in earnest. If there is little progress, the trajectory will be for more sanction, greater isolation and possibly war. If he can deliver tangible progress within the next 12 months, I am inclined to believe war will be avoided, at least for the foreseeable future,” Michael Elleman noted.

Safak Bas, an analyst at the European Stability Initiative (ESI) in Berlin, expects less confrontational rhetoric and more confidence building in return.

“Hassan Rouhani is a well-known person within the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran. After the Islamic Revolution in 1979, he was appointed by Ali Khamenei to monitor the military and defence sector of the Islamic Republic. In 1981, he replaced Ali Khamenei as head of the parliamentary defence commission. In the years to follow he has become one of the most influential and important men within security establishment of Iran. I would definitely characterize him as a key figure in the political establishment of the Islamic Republic. Concerning the election, I would say that he was a moderate among hard-line conservatives,” the analyst explained.

According to him, the atmosphere in Iran following the elections can be characterized as hopeful.

“Everybody hopes that Hassan Rouhani’s election will stabilize the economy. There is also hope that the sanctions will be lifted. In the press conference after the elections, Rouhani said that his first priority would be the economy. Furthermore, he stated that he wants to be the president of all Iranians and stressed the importance of national unity. Especially young Iranians hope for more personal freedom and press freedom. However, it is difficult to say if his election will bring significant change to the above-mentioned issues. He has to consider other key players of the system, such as the Supreme Leader, hard-line clerics, the Revolutionary Guards and other security services. I think he will try to minimize the risk of a confrontation with these figures,” Safak Bas said.

Kamal Sido, the head of Middle East Department of the Society for Threatened Peoples (STP), shared this view and also noted that no major reforms should be expected in the country.

“There may be some changes in domestic policy, perhaps, the weakening of repression against ethnic and religious minorities; but radical changes will not occur,” the expert said.

“Atmosphere in relations with the West will be less stressful; the country might be more flexible on its nuclear program. Iran’s relations with Russia have been and remain good. However, no change on Syria issue is expected – in accordance with the constitution, the president does not have the full authority,” Kamal Sidob added.

Meanwhile, Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi, an expert of Middle East and Mediterranean Studies at King’s College London, pointed out that the international reaction to the election of Hassan Rouhani has been mostly positive.

“It has included the commitment to engagement with the president-elect on complex issues such as the nuclear dossier and the Syrian crisis. Although the president has constitutionally limited power with regard to foreign and security issues, he might be able to shift the Iranian tone and attitude to the West, particularly with regard to the handling of the nuclear issue, of which he has extensive knowledge given his former post as chief nuclear negotiator, during which he was known for a compromising and engaging approach,” the analyst said.

According to him, Hassan Rouhani’s election raises hope of an improvement of the economic situation and relations with the international community, but the disappointing experience of a reformist government between 1997 and 2005 in delivering change decreases the expectations toward the ability of Rouhani to deliver on his electoral promises.

Baqer Moin, former head of BBC Persian and Pashto Service, director of Jadid Media, also noted that the mood in Iran is ranging from elation to optimism and caution.

“In the context of Iran, Hassan Rouhani is a modern man and a pragmatist who wants to realize Iran’s potentials. But remember how Mohammad Khatami was undermined — the western right wingers, like their counterparts in Iran, prefer a belligerent Iran and not a moderate Iran,” the expert said.

He added that on the economic front, the president would try to revive domestic output, local investment and reduce unemployment; on social policies and political freedom, he would face resistance and therefore the changes would be gradual.

However, Hooman Majd, an Iranian-American journalist, author, and commentator, was more optimistic in his predictions.

“The president-elect is someone who is respected by the conservatives as well as the reformists, which means he should be able work more effectively to resolve some of Iran’s domestic and international problems. It is expected there will be some positive changes on the economy, and in civil and human rights. At the very least, Hassan Rouhani will appoint competent and qualified technocrats to manage the nation’s affairs. I think based on his campaign promises and statements after the election, he will emphasize diplomacy and reasonableness in international relations. He certainly intends to try to repair relations with regional countries, then the Europeans, and finally, if possible, even with the US. The rhetoric of the last eight years will disappear, and there might be more flexibility in any negotiations on issues. But more importantly, Hassan Rouhani represents the pragmatic wing of Iranian politics, which means his administration will proceed with protecting Iran’s interests without antagonizing the world at large,” the expert explained.

Amir Hassanpour, Associate Professor at the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations at the University of Toronto, said that this time, what happened in Iran is not quite the way mainstream media in the West and many Iranians have depicted.

“The Iranian government is deeply fragmented and, for sometime before the election, was on the brink of internal factional war. In my interpretation, Ali Khamenei and his faction are in a very shaky situation: extreme discontent resulting from economic hardships exacerbated by sanctions and foreign policy; increasing factional fight; fear of movements like Arab Spring; uncertain situation of Syria, etc.; but at the same time this faction’s understanding of US weaknesses — almost total failure in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as problems in Pakistan; conflicts between Barack Obama and Benyamin Natanyahu and so on. Under these conditions, the Supreme Leader had to give concessions without giving in to the reform faction: Hassan Rouhani, a middleman or moderate as he has been called, was staged to appease Iranian voters and the reformists as well as not quite in the reformist camp consented. However, none of this will mean the end of the contradictions between Iranians and the theocratic regime or the contradictions among the factions in power,” the analyst said.

From his point of view, Iranian voters were so happy with the election results because they were extremely displeased with the policies of the former president; but most Iranian voters do not have illusions about Hassan Rouhani.

Raz Zimmt, an expert of Alliance Centre for Iranian Studies, Tel-Aviv University, also questioned the possibility of serious internal reforms, stressing, however, that there might be a change in the domestic political atmosphere.

“As Hassan Rouhani is considered to be more moderate and less controversial than the former president and his personal style is more diplomatic, we should expect less political internal rivalries as we used to see during the last few years. We might also see more open liberal approach towards issues concerning human rights, freedom of the press and censorship. One should not forget, however, that substantial domestic reforms cannot be carried out without the consent of the religious establishment and the judiciary which did not change. So even if Hassan Rouhani wishes to carry out some reforms and adopt a more liberal domestic policy, he will have to do that with great caution. However, his ability to solve the major economic crisis is doubtful because most economic problems are due to international sanctions and structural economic problems,” the expert noted.

According to him, we should expect better atmosphere in international interaction with Iran and softer terminology and tone coming from Iranian president.

“Some changes are possible, but the basic policies adopted by the Iranian regime in the last few years, which represent their conceptions concerning Iranian national interests, will probably not change dramatically. I think we should follow the developments in Iran cautiously and avoid wishful thinking,” Raz Zimmt emphasized.

In turn, Afshin Marashi, Associate Professor, Farzaneh Family Chair of Iranian Studies, Department of International and Area Studies at University of Oklahoma, looks at the situation from a different angle.

“The president has very little control of Iran’s foreign policy. The Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guards control foreign policy on issues such as Iran’s role in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, the nuclear issue, the confrontation with Israel, and relations with the US. However, since clearly the US imposed sanctions are having a dramatic negative effect on Iran’s economy, it is possible to read this election as the Supreme Leader having decided to make a change in foreign policy and using this election as a way of charting a new course. The sanctions on Iran have been crippling and it is possible to see this election as, in part, a response to the sanctions,” the expert suggested.

“The new president is a seasoned politician within the system and has had many high ranking positions which have held great responsibility. I expect him to conduct himself with more professionalism than Ahmadinejad, and his demeanor will be more in line with international standards of diplomacy,” he added.

Hassan Hakimian, director of London Middle East Institute, reader at Department of Economics, SOAS, University of London, said there was great symbolism in Hassan Rouhani’s victory.

“According to the new president, it “represents a triumph of moderation over extremism.” During his election campaign, he stood out among the presidential hopefuls by committing himself to tackling pressing and popular issues. Amongst these are dealing with urgent economic priorities such as high inflation, low purchasing power and high unemployment; in other words reviving the ailing economy of Iran which has been battered by some of toughest unilateral US and EU sanctions ever seen. This will in turn require improving Iran’s international standing to reduce these sanctions. The internal and external factors are intricately and intimately intertwined, however. Given that the political structure in which the new president will be operating has not changed of course achieving even some of these will require time and much patience as he was quick to point out in his first press conference,” the expert noted.

In his opinion, Hassan Rouhani’s election offers an encouraging opportunity both for Iran and western countries to bring about a change.

“For the first time in recent decades do we have a positive combination of a democrat at the helm in the White House with a centrist reformer president in power in Iran. This is particularly true since they have a full term of office ahead of them. However, this is a vexed and complex issue and ultimately it takes two to tango. It is not just what Iran does but also whether the West is able and willing to take advantage of a historic opportunity to improve relations with Iran,” Hassan Hakimian concluded.

The post of President was introduced in Iran after the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

The President of Iran is the highest popularly elected official in Iran, although the President serves as the Prime Minister and answers to the Supreme Leader of Iran, who functions as the country’s head of state.

The President of Iran is elected for a four-year term by the direct vote of the people and may not serve for more than two consecutive terms or more than 8 years.

The new president will have 14 days after the inauguration to introduce his cabinet, after which parliament will have 10 days to review their eligibility.