Iranian President-Elect Signals Possible Foreign Policy Shifts

Iranian President-Elect Hassan Rouhani (Credit: Xinhua /Landov/Barcroft Media)

Iranian President-Elect Hassan Rouhani on Monday announced several possible shifts in his country’s foreign policy’s tone, if not necessarily its substance, in his first news conference since the election.

Rouhani, described as the most moderate candidate allowed to run for the seat, won Iran’s election on Saturday in a surprising first round victory. Speaking at a gathering of foreign and domestic journalists, Rouhani made clear that his government would attempt to strike a different tone than that of his predecessor. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s eight years in office have been marked with outlandish statements from him and scorn from Iran’s Gulf neighbors and the international community alike. Rather than antagonizing the rest of the world, Rouhani told reporters his governments’s priority in foreign policy is to have “friendly, close relations with all nations in the vicinity — all fifteen of them — based on mutual respect.”

On the most contentious issue Iran faces, how and if to continue development of its nuclear program, Rouhani called for increased transparency on the Iranian government’s part. “We are ready to show greater transparency and make clear that the Islamic Republic of Iran’s actions are totally within international frameworks,” he told the press. Rouhani also expressed his hope that the current international sanctions imposed on Iran would be able to be alleviated and rolled back as part of an agreement, calling the measures “oppressive.”

Rouhani, however, denied that his government would halt the enrichment of uranium, saying “that time has passed.” The complete stopping of uranium enrichment has been a key demand from the international community to date, an ultimatum that Iran has ignored. “We have many ways of building confidence other than suspending enrichment,” Rouhani, a former nuclear negotiator for the Iranian government, said instead. In particular, Rouhani highlighted a 2005 proposal from then-President Jacques Chirac of France which would allow Iran to continue low-level uranium enrichment as the possible starting point for an agreement. That deal, Rouhani claims, was scuttled due to the United States and United Kingdom being unable to agree to its terms.

The United States for its part has offered cautious optimism in the face of Rouhani’s election. “I see it as a potentially hopeful sign,” White House Chief of Staff Dennis McDonough said on CBS’s Face the Nation this Sunday. “I think the question for us now is: If he is interested in, as he has said in his campaign events, mending his relations — Iran’s relations with the rest of the world — there’s an opportunity to do that,” he added.

Washington likewise offered its muted congratulations over the weekend, focusing on the Iranian people rather than the regime in its message. “We admire the courage of the Iranian people who went to the polls and made their voices heard in a rigidly controlled environment that sought to limit freedom of expression and assembly,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement released Saturday. Iranians took to the streets on Saturday in celebration once Rouhani’s victory was announced, expressing hope in the candidate’s ability to moderate Iran’s policy.

Rouhani in his press conference also indicated a willingness to meet with the United States in direct talks, noting that that certain conditions must be made before such talks could take place. It is unclear however what, if any, change in substance Rouhani will be able to bring to bear, given the system of government in place in Tehran. Under this hierarchy, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameni wields decision-making power regarding foreign relations.