At first thought, Hassan Rouhani is an improbable figure on which to rest hopes for a change in Iran’s foreign relations.
The bearded cleric, who will turn 65 in November, is deeply entrenched within the country’s establishment. Among other roles, he serves as a member of the Assembly of Experts, the Supreme National Security Council and, for a time, was Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator.
Yet, his victory in the presidential election on 14 June offers the best opportunity Tehran has had in many years to set itself on a new course.
In the context of Iranian politics, Rouhani is a moderate. During the election campaign, he criticised the security services in Iran for over-reaching their powers and called for political prisoners to be released. Since his victory, he has said Iran should become more transparent over its nuclear programme.
Perhaps importantly, his election offers hope that Tehran will turn away from the divisive rhetoric of the man he is replacing, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Iran could now start engaging with the world on a more reasoned basis.
Confrontation with the West has left the Islamic Republic increasingly isolated and economically weakened and, in this election, Iranians have indicated they would like the country to take a new direction. By not fixing the result in favour of one of the more conservative candidates, it seems that the elite are also open to some sort of change too.
A warmer tone will not be enough to repair the damage done over recent years. Iran’s relations with the US remain full of distrust, and those with other Western powers are barely better. There will need to be concrete changes in policy if things are to improve and there can be no guarantees that Rouhani will be able to achieve this. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei has shown no willingness to alter course on the nuclear programme, which lies at the heart of Iran’s current predicament.
Nonetheless, if there is to be change in the long term, this looks like a good way to start.