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New president shifts Iran's tack, hews to nuclear goals

| Monday, June 17, 2013, 9:51 p.m.

Western hopes that Iran's newly elected president signals a moderate shift by the mullahs who run the country may be misplaced, given Hassan Rowhani's support of the leadership's nuclear program, some experts said.

Rowhani's pledge to “build trust” may open possibilities for dialogue to ease tensions over Tehran's disputed nuclear program. But analysts said Iran's unelected ruler, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has no real differences with Rowhani, a man who has been part of the regime for decades and made the cut of regime-approved candidates.

Rowhani's approach is to move forward with Iran's ultimate aims, but to deal with Western opposition “more intelligently,” said Marc Reuel Gerecht, a former CIA operations officer who focused on Iranian sources.

Rowhani's objective is “to not diminish the ultimate nuclear objective, which is weaponization, but to slow down certain aspects (of the nuclear program), to make concessions but keep your eye on the goal,” he said.

Rowhani's presidential campaign and much of the election debate focused on Iran's economy, which has been crippled by international sanctions aimed at curbing its disputed nuclear program.

On Monday, Rowhani spoke of moderation, trust and new beginnings, but he left no doubt that Iran's nuclear program will proceed. “We have to enhance mutual trust between Iran and other countries,” Rowhani said, according to Press TV, the official Iranian news broadcaster. “The basis of politics is constructive interaction with the world.”

He said there would be no halt to uranium enrichment and no direct U.S. dialogue without a pledge to stay out of Iranian affairs.

The campaign showed “a growing consensus within Iran's political establishment, including hard-liners, that Iran needs to find a way out of the nuclear crisis, not by getting a nuclear weapon but by cutting some kind of a deal,” said Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center.

Meir Javendanfar, an analyst at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel, said Rowhani's election did not happen against the supreme leader's will.

“I'm seeing a change in the policy and approach of the supreme leader,” Javendanfar said.

Rowhani won 50.7 percent of the vote, running against six final candidates (one dropped out) approved by the Guardian Council of the Constitution, a body of Khamenei appointees. Friday's election went smoothly, unlike in 2009, when Iranians flooded the streets to protest what many claimed was a rigged vote count, and the protests were suppressed with violence.

Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, opposition candidates from 2009, remain under house arrest.

Rowhani on his own suggested suspending uranium enrichment in 2004 and delivered short-lived results. Iran at the time was worried about antagonizing the United States after its invasion of neighboring Iraq the previous year, Gerecht said. Rowhani wrote in his memoir of the negotiations he sought to keep building confidence with the international community while building Iran's nuclear capacity as negotiations continued, Gerecht said.

During the campaign, Rowhani criticized the government's confrontational foreign policy style, saying he could have achieved the same nuclear progress while avoiding crippling international sanctions that have throttled Iran's economy.

Iran's struggling economy was a major campaign issue, and it was impossible to address it without discussing sanctions and the nuclear strategy that has caused the United States, Europe and the United Nations to limit Iran's access to goods and currency that grease the wheels of commerce. Rowhani stood out for his harsh criticism of the confrontational policies and approach of incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The openness of the debate about nuclear negotiations and sanctions during the campaign, and the lack of official pushback from the Islamic regime since the election suggests that Rowhani will be allowed an opportunity to seek an accommodation with the West, Maloney said.

“He would appear to have some mandate to deal with the nuclear issue in some manner different than his predecessor did,” Maloney said. “There was considerable degree of running room given to all the candidates to talk about the nuclear issue in a way never before seen in Iranian politics. To my mind, that's a signal.”

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