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Iranians vote for reform

Iranians vote for reform
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The spontaneous celebrations that erupted in the streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities soon after moderate cleric Hassan Rowhani was declared...

The spontaneous celebrations that erupted in the streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities soon after moderate cleric Hassan Rowhani was declared President on Saturday were symbolic of a country that had been crying for a change after eight years of rule by hardliner Mahmud Ahmadinejad. His two consecutive presidential terms were marked more by confrontations with the West over his controversial nuclear programme than economic development.

The outgoing President, not from the clerical ranks, has had tiffs with the Supreme Council, an all-powerful body of religious leaders that has the final say in important decisions and on strategic issues, over key policies. In fact, Ahmadinejad was under a cloud over his election for the second term in 2009 and was declared winner amid Opposition allegations of widespread electoral malpractices and rigging. However, he steam-rolled the Opposition criticism and continued as President for another four years which proved to be disastrous for the country and its people.

Ahmadinejad's obsession with nuclear power � though Iran is the sixth oil and gas producer in the world � his antipathy towards the US, hatred for Israel, support for Islamic fundamentalist outfits like Hezbollah and Bashar Al Assad's government in Syria were all reasons for turning his neighbouring oil-rich countries and the US and its allies against Iran.

Economic sanctions imposed by the UN under Washington pressure, oil embargoes and blocking of government accounts in foreign banks have only worsened the Iranians' plight with inflation running as high as 30 per cent. Despite economic hardships, Ahmadinejad had continued his policy of confrontation without giving in to Arab and American pressure tactics to keep the country's nuclear programme running. In recent years, testing of short and long range missiles added a new dimension to Tehran' military might with Gulf States and their allies in the West -- as well as Israel -- fearing a belligerent Iran may turn nuclear.

Probably, global concern over Tehran's nuclear programme � Iran insists it is for peaceful purposes but others believe it is weapons-oriented � has given the outgoing President the kind of pyrrhic attention he was longing for. But, unfortunately, his personal ambitions and the path he had chosen to lead the country have cost the country dearly. Now, the Iranians seem to have chosen a moderate cleric from among a dozen leading figures in a vote considered to be free and fair.

While Rowhani, a former nuclear negotiator and a well-known public figure in Iran, is all set to take the reins of Iran, his major task is to repair the damage inflicted on the country by Ahmadinejad. That is, Rowhani has to break with the past and consign the legacy of Ahmadinejad to history and make a fresh beginning.

His first task is already cut out: Economic revival for which Rowhani has to build bridges of friendship to Western countries, to give them enough confidence that he is the leader Iran's "enemies" could work with and try to ease, if not totally lift, economic sanctions so that the country can breathe a bit easy. That means Rowhani has to reverse many policies his predecessor had followed and create a trustworthy atmosphere to interact with the West.

But the stumbling block is Iran's nuclear programme which, in experts' view, is non-negotiable. In any case, the Iranian President doesn't have much say in setting the country's key policies on national security, oil, and relations with the West. Decisions on these issues are the prerogative of the Supreme Council and the Revolutionary Guard. Since Rowhani is said to have been in their good books, unlike Ahmadinejad who had crossed swords with mullahs, the new President's task to cut a deal with the US acceptable to both sides may be easy. Already, the US and its allies have cautiously welcomed his election and are waiting for his first move to end Iran's isolation.

Rowhani's first press conference on Sunday after being elected President gave the world a glimpse of his policy thinking. He promised to follow 'a path of moderation' and greater openness over Iran's nuclear programme. However, he made it clear that he would not support suspension of the country's uranium enrichment. But, in the same breath, he promised to encourage "step by step" measures to reassure the West over Iran's nuclear ambitions by adopting a transparent policy to stress the fact that Iran's nuclear pursuit is within the permissible global norms.

Thus, for the first time, an Iranian leader has struck a conciliatory note on one of the most controversial programmes that has made the country a pariah state in the eyes of the West. It is a welcome sign from the point of improving Iranian ties with other countries, what Rowhani called "constructive interaction with the world." Despite his mollifying words on nuclear programme and ties with other countries, Rowhani's real intentions will be known only after he assumes office in August when Ahmadinejad formally steps down.

Another key issue is Iran's support to Syria's President Bashar Al Assad who has been battling rebels for a couple of years. With the Obama administration deciding to arm insurgents to defeat Syrian government forces, Iranian involvement in the conflict may deepen, pitting Teheran and Washington against each other once again. Similarly, Rowhani has to spell out his policy towards Iran's arch enemy Israel and Tehran's relations with Gulf Arab States who have territorial disputes with it and are suspicious of its intentions.

Despite prevailing mistrust and uneasy relationships between Iran and its neighbouring countries and its fractured ties with the West, Tehran can still chart a new course under the dispensation of Rowhani who is seen as a new hope for the country by the young generation. He himself has said, "A new era has begun." Would he be able to usher it in albeit in the shadow of ayatollahs? If he can, it will be a great revolution without blood after the 1979 Iranian Revolution that overthrew the Shah.

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