Rowhani victory in Iran raises cautious hopes in region

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BEIRUT -- The election of Hassan Rowhani as Iran’s new president has raised hopes of increased engagement with other nations and a new era of moderation in the Islamic Republic, according to commentaries across the region on Sunday.

Rowhani, a soft-spoken, 64-year old bespectacled and turbaned cleric, will hold his first press conference on Monday, the Iranian Student News Agency (ISNA) reported. His victory was featured prominently Sunday in many Arab newspapers.

“Rowhani, the reformists’ candidate, is president of Iran,” the London-based, pan-Arab Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper splashed on its front page.


“Can Rowhani be another Khatami?” asked the English-language Saudi Gazette, referring to ex-Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, whose administration was relatively open to the world.

Many speculated on whether Rowhani would be able to mend ties with Sunni Gulf nations, who have strained relations with Shiite Iran, part of a broader conflict between the two branches of Islam.

Leaders from Gulf Arab monarchies appeared quick to congratulate Rowhani. These included Saudi Arabia, a fierce rival of Iran and a place where presidential elections are unheard of.

“Wishing prosperity to the people of the brotherly Islamic Republic of Iran,” Saudi King Abdullah, a close U.S. ally, told Rowhani in a letter carried by the official Saudi news agency.

The Saudi comment followed similar missives from other Gulf states.

“We look forward to working together for the good of this region,” the United Arab Emirates President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan wrote in a cable to Rowhani, state news agency WAM said.

The rulers of Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait also congratulated Rowhani on his win, media reports said. The Gulf monarchies regularly accuse Iran of meddling in their domestic affairs. Particularly tense is the issue of Bahrain, where the Gulf Arab rulers accuse Iran of backing a Shiite-opposition movement against a minority Sunni dynasty.


A few days before the election, Hassan Rowhani told Asharq Al-Awsat, the London-based newspaper, that forging better relations with neighbors would be one of his top priorities.

“If elected, I will engage closely in diplomatic interaction and cooperation with all countries in the region to remove the clouds of misunderstanding and rivalry,” Rowhani wrote in an email interview.

The congratulatory messages “seemed to indicate an earnest desire to start a new chapter” in relations between Iran and the Sunni Gulf nations, wrote Bahrain-based journalist Habib Toumi, in the English-language daily Gulf News. The article argued that Rowhani “can change history by taking bold steps on regional issues.”
Iran’s continued support of Syrian President Bashar Assad remains a major point of contention. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been leading funders of rebels seeking to oust Assad. The recent intervention on Assad’s behalf by the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah, a close ally of Iran, has escalated tensions. On Saturday, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi officially broke off ties with war-torn Syria and publicly slammed Hezbollah.

The deep strains about Syria were evident in commentary Sunday in Egypt’s Al-Ahram newspaper.

“Analysts see that the official Iranian stance on the Syria is ... completely biased toward the Syrian regime,” wrote columnist Mahmoud Noby, warning of the possibility of a wider war that “everyone in the region will have to pay the price for.”

In Lebanon, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah sent a cable to Rowhani congratulating him on the victory and saying he “revived the hopes” of Iranians.


The reactions were less enthusiastic in Israel where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on the West not to ease the pressure on the Islamic Republic about its nuclear program simply because an apparent moderate has been elected president.

“Regarding the results of the elections in Iran, let us not delude ourselves,” Netanyahu said in remarks at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting. “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 opposition chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich, however, expressed careful optimism about Rowhani’s victory — while stressing Israel must remain “strong” and ready on the issue of Iran.

“The results of Iranian elections attest the genuine, mass desire of the Iranian nation for change,” Yachimovich said in a statement. “The same way none of the experts or politicians predicted Rowhani’s victory 24 hours ago, so should we refrain from analyzing tomorrow based on yesterday’s assessments.”


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Sandels is a special correspondent. Times’ news assistants Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem and Ingy Hassieb in Cairo contributed to this report.