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Rohani victory may undermine support for attack on Iran

Iranian President-elect Hassan Rohani’s vow to improve ties with the world carried him to a surprise first-round win. It may have also rewound the clock on a potential military strike against his country over its nuclear program.

“Those advocating an attack on Iran have been dealt a setback,” said Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy in Washington. “The chances of an attack on Iran are even more remote than they have been in many years.”

While Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, 73, retains the power over national security, especially the nuclear program, past presidents have been able to influence the tone of foreign policy. The departure of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose anti-Israel rhetoric and questioning of the Holocaust made Iran a pariah and helped prompt more sanctions, removes a lightning rod for global scorn.

After Rohani captured 18.6 million votes, about 51 percent, Western countries signaled an interest in engaging with him. The British Foreign Office urged him to set a new course for Iran and the European Union’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said she hoped his win will lead to a “swift diplomatic solution” to the standoff over the nuclear program.

The White House said the U.S. “remains ready to engage the Iranian government directly in order to reach a diplomatic solution that will fully address the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.”

Iranian officials say the nuclear program is for energy and medical research. Israel and the U.S. say they believe Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons capability. The Jewish state has threatened to attack Iran should other means fail to stop the Islamic republic from trying to obtain nuclear weapons.

Rohani’s victory revealed an internal opposition to the policies that have ostracized Iran. It also makes it more difficult to explain military action to international public opinion, said Gerald Steinberg, professor of political science at Bar Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel.

“Ahmadinejad was a figure everyone loves to hate,” Steinberg said. “Rohani is more sophisticated and a softer face of the same Iranian leadership.”

Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz if attacked and as the U.S. and Europe intensified sanctions targeting its financial and energy industries. An average of 14 crude tankers sail each day through the strait, which is 21 miles wide at its narrowest, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, indicating a closure of the waterway would lead to a spike in oil prices.

Most of the oil exported by Saudi Arabia, OPEC’s biggest producer, as well as crude from Iraq, Kuwait, the U.A.E., Qatar and Iran itself passes through the waterway, making Hormuz the world’s most important energy chokepoint, with a daily flow of 17 million barrels a day in 2011, according to EIA data.

All six Iranian candidates said they backed Iran’s right to nuclear energy. Still, Rohani, who was Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator under former President Mohammad Khatami, said progress shouldn’t come at the expense of the economy and the well-being of the population.

“It’s fine for centrifuges to spin if people are also getting by,” he said during a debate this month.

His grace period with world powers may be short after talks over the past two years have failed to narrow differences.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday urged the world to maintain its pressure, saying Khamenei, not Rohani, holds the nuclear strings. Israel is not “deluding” itself over Rohani’s win and Iran’s nuclear program must be stopped no matter how, Netanyahu said.

“I don’t think any policy would have the ability to really change the attitude of the U.S. and the European Union in trying to squeeze Iran over the nuclear issue,” said Edward Bell, an analyst at the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit.

Rohani, 64, promised in April that he would pursue “dialogue and interaction with the world.” He has spoken in favor of increased freedom for the press as well as non- governmental organizations and vowed to improve the economy, which is set to contract 1.3 percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund.

President Barack Obama reached out at least twice to the supreme leader without success. Iranian officials have said the U.S. approach was never genuine, designed only to curtail Iran’s rights and influence in the region.

Rohani’s election offers hope for a renewed diplomatic effort, said Geneive Abdo, a research fellow at the Washington- based Stimson Center.

“If the rhetoric from Iran changes this gives Obama once again the opportunity to call for some type of engagement,” she said. “It will completely de-escalate the sense of urgency for the U.S. to take action on Iran.”

Rohani’s careful grooming contrasts with Ahmadinejad’s, whose unkempt appearance and casual dress initially connected him to some voters. Rohani trained as a lawyer and serves on the Assembly of Experts, a religious body that nominates the supreme leader. He’s also head of the Center for Strategic Research at the Expediency Council, an advisory panel headed by former president Ali Akbar Rafsanjani. He holds master’s and doctorate law degrees from Glasgow Caledonian University.

He may be measured against the standards set by Ahmadinejad’s predecessor Khatami, who eased social and media restrictions and promoted interaction with the West.

At his campaign rallies, Rohani’s vowed to end Iran’s isolation and pursue a policy of reconciliation. He has little choice if he wants to revive an economy hurt by inflation at 30 percent and an economic crisis that left a quarter of Iranians age 15 to 29 unemployed in the year ended March 20.

Sanctions punishing Iran for its nuclear program include curbs on financial transactions and crude oil exports, the country’s main source of revenue.

“Sanctioning Ahmadinejad was very easy, it comes very naturally to the entire international community,” said Cliff Kupchan, director for the Middle East at the New York-based Eurasia Group. “Sanctioning a moderate, well-respected, judicious, articulate cleric is one heck of a lot harder.”

Foroohar reported from New York, with assistance from Ladane Nasseri and Anthony DiPaola in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Yeganeh Salehi in Tehran, Iran.

© 2013, Bloomberg News

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