Iran’s election of Rohani is an opportunity worth testing

June 19, 2013 

© 2013, Bloomberg News.

The following editorial appears on Bloomberg View:

The election of Hassan Rohani as Iran’s president has drawn stern warnings, including from the Israeli prime minister, against the hope that his victory signals meaningful change. It’s too soon to know exactly what it signals – but the result is a welcome surprise and an opportunity that should be cautiously explored.

The June 14 vote replaces President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a cartoon extremist who would be funny if he weren’t so frightening, with a more approachable interlocutor. Rohani isn’t a reformist or a moderate in the ordinary meaning of the word – but, so far as we know, he isn’t a habitual Holocaust denier or demagogue either. When it comes to Iran’s leadership, that’s progress.

The Scottish-educated cleric also seems to be something of a pragmatist. As a nuclear negotiator in 2003, he agreed to suspend Iran’s enrichment of uranium. It helps that he owes his election to the support of two former moderate presidents – Ali Akbar Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami – plus voters from the anti-regime Green Movement. They’ll remind him of his campaign promises to improve the economy and relations with the rest of the world. It’s true that Rohani was a regime-approved candidate and that no reformists were allowed to run, but his election is still a rebuff to conservatives. They lost, and they know it.

The election certainly improves the public face of the Iranian regime – and that’s exactly the danger, according to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. With Rohani in office, rallying international support for tighter sanctions or future military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities will be more difficult. And the military option needs to stay on the table: Iran’s supreme leader and chief of foreign policy is still Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a man thought unlikely to budge except under pressure.

Airstrikes are a deeply unappealing option, but the threat needs to be retained as a last resort. The West’s response to Rohani’s election shouldn’t send a contrary message.

Circumspection should be the order of the day. Nonetheless, Rohani’s election provides an opening, especially if it indicates a movement in popular sentiment that the leadership has decided to tolerate. In the end, how big or small the shift will be is for Khamenei and Rohani to resolve.

The election provides a glimmer of optimism, no more.

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