Many tasks ahead for Iran's Rowhani

He may have to exert modest pressure on Tehran's ally, the Lebanese Hizbollah movement.

Iranian President-elect Hassan Rowhani was victorious over his five conservative rivals because he promised an end to provocative rhetoric, engage with the West, and ease  sanctions which have crippled the economy, created double digit unemployment,  and driven inflation. The fact that he won by taking more than 50 per cent of the vote in the first round gives him a strong mandate to effect change even though the clerical establishment, headed by Supreme Guide Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is averse to change.
To improve perceptions of Iran in West Asia and the international community Rowhani will have to undertake the following tasks: He will have to counter the negative effects of comments on the Holocaust and Israel made by outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad without renouncing Tehran's support for Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation, a constant element in Iranian foreign policy since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini overthrew the shah in 1979.

Rowhani will have to deliver on his pledge to provide more transparency with respect to Iran's nuclear programme by opening sites for inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency. This would reassure the West and its Arab allies that Tehran means what it says when it insists that it has no intention of building a nuclear bomb. He should be in a good position to achieve this end because in 2003 he persuaded Khamenei to drop Iran's clandestine efforts to make nuclear weapons.

Negotiated transition

Rowhani will have to ensure that Iran's ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will attend the international conference proposed by the US and Russia with the aim of ending the war in Syria and effecting a negotiated transition to a democratic regime. This should not require a great deal of effort. A former senior Syrian minister told The Deccan Herald that Damascus, which has, in principle, agreed to take part in the conference, is not only ready to negotiate but also understands that the regime in its present form will have to be replaced.

The main obstacle to the conference is not Iran or Assad but the failure of the Western and Arab backed opposition National Coalition to unify, take command of the disparate rebel groups fighting in Syria, elect a new president and prepare to participate in the conference. Rowhani may have to exert modest pressure on Tehran's ally, the Lebanese Hizbollah movement to play a low profile role, if any, in the Syrian army's campaign to re-establish full control over the country's commercialhub, Aleppo. Hizbollah fighters, trained in guerrilla warfare, helped oust rebels from the strategic Syrian town of Qusayr, 10 kilometres from the Lebanese border.

Hizbollah's involvement prompted the US, France and Britain to threaten to supply arms to certain rebel militias with the aim of redressing the balance of power on the battlefield and the balance of advantage at the negotiating table in Geneva, if and when the conference gets underway. Rowhani could encourage Shia fundamentalist Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, an Iranian client, to engage with the country's Sunni community, which has been marginalised and persecuted since the 2003 US invasion and occupation.  His mistreatment of Sunnis has led Sunni Saudi Arabia to warn of the threat to Sunnis, the majority in the worldwide Muslim community, posed by Shia Iran and its allies.

Former Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Muqrin, apparently told US diplomats that the imaginary "crescent" was becoming a "full moon" with the extension of Iranian influence. Steps that could reduce Saudi paranoia would be welcome, particularly since Riyadh has responded to the presumed Iranian Shia challenge by promoting "holy war," or "jihad" by Sunni extremists who are playing an increasingly important role in the conflict in Syria, setting off bombs against Shia targets in Iraq, staging attacks in Lebanon, and forcing the governments of Egypt and Tunisia to adopt conservative policies favoured by ultra-orthodox Sunni elements.

Rowhani, a loyal follower of Khomeini, a former member of the country's security establishment and chief nuclear negotiator, will require encouragement from the West and the Arabs if he is to undertake these tasks. So far, the West, led by the US, has only muttered about chances for improved relations but Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced that Iran is prepared to halt uranium enrichment to the 20 per cent level, a key Western demand, suggesting that a breakthrough could be achieved in dead-locked talks on Iran's nuclear programme.

Unfortunately, US President Barack Obama - who sets the tone of European and Arab relations with Tehran - has simply gone along with his pre decessors' refusal to accept the regime that toppled its client, the shah.

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