To understand the changes likely to occur under Iran’s new president, Hasan Rowhani, consider this summation of the outgoing regime by a veteran foreign policy analyst.
Iran’s approach to the world was ideological and focused attention on the Arab-Israeli conflict and Lebanon – issues far from the country’s vital interests, said Davood Hermidas Bavand, a retired diplomat from the era of Shah Reza Pahlavi who has assisted the Islamic Republic leadership with crisis management.
Even as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad largely ignored areas close to home such as Central Asia, Iran’s intervention in Syria on the side of President Bashar Assad has plunged the country into a proxy conflict with Saudi Arabia. And because of the absence of pragmatic alternatives, when Iran hit a crisis – and it’s in one now in Syria, with the U.S. and Persian Gulf states stepping up arms deliveries to anti-government forces – “people find themselves in a very difficult situation,” Bavand told McClatchy in an interview.
Now Rowhani, elected Friday by an absolute majority from a field of six candidates, has indicated that his most important foreign policy goals are to focus closer to home, in the Persian Gulf region, and to improve relations with Saudi Arabia.
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The Persian Gulf has “strategic significance” for Iran, as well as political and economic importance, Rowhani said Monday at his first news conference as president-elect.
“We are not only neighbors, we are brothers,” Rowhani said of Saudi Arabia. “We have had very close relations, culturally, historically and regionally.”
And unlike Ahmadinejad, who didn’t tolerate criticism or consider alternative courses of action, Rowhani will arrive in office with his own think tank in tow. Since 1992, he has headed the Center for Strategic Research, an institute affiliated with the Expediency Council, one of the top bodies in Iran’s complex power structure.
“It is the most important think tank in Iran,” said Trita Parsi, a foreign affairs scholar who heads the National Iranian American Council and has written two books on negotiations with Tehran’s nuclear enrichment program. “They have some of Iran’s best analysts there.”
Mohsen Milani, a professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa, said the think tank “would be the equivalent in Iran” of the Brookings Institution in Washington, traditionally closer to the Democratic Party and a sanctuary for Democrats out of government.
He said the main theme of the Center for Strategic Research’s publications was that after eight years of growing isolation under Ahmadinejad, there was an urgent need to reintegrate Iran into the world economy and into international affairs.
“The narrative is of reintegration into the world economy and a rejection of the revolutionary agenda that seeks to change everything in the world,” Milani said, in favor of “a narrative that this is the way the world is, and Iran should find the right place for Iran to play a constructive role.”
Parsi judged Rowhani’s emphasis on Saudi Arabia to be a major shift.
Rarely have relations been as bad between the two countries as in the past eight years, he said.
“Rowhani and his allies are in position to significantly reduce tensions with Saudi Arabia,” he said. “And a functioning relationship with Saudi Arabia is essential for an end to the crisis in Syria.”
Tensions are high, with the Saudis refusing to speak to the Iranians in international forums on Syria. If this continues, there is the risk of conflict between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran, possibly opening the way to an even wider war along the main sectarian divide in the Muslim world. Specialists say reconciliation between the two countries is essential to ending the Syrian civil war.
Rowhani did not say how Iran might draw back from its current role in Syria, which includes sending military experts to help Assad’s regime direct the war, dispatching trainers to set up a new militia, and providing arms and funds for the regime. “The resolution of the issues of Syria is up to the people of Syria,” Rowhani said Monday, adding that Iran wants to see peace and tranquility restored in Syria.
Milani, who’s had a paper published by Rowhani’s think tank, said he did not recall seeing papers on relations with Saudi Arabia in the institute’s publications for the past several years – a possible indication of the political environment. But that doesn’t mean it was not the subject of vigorous discussion.
A Hawaii-based independent scholar who’s closely followed the think tank’s development sees it not only as the fountainhead of the policies Rowhani is likely to adopt, but also as the training ground for future members of his Cabinet.
“When Ahmadinejad became president, the people he fired went to the center,” said Farideh Farhi, adjunct graduate faculty member at the University of Hawaii. “They are people with views. They have an alternative way of thinking about policies, and an alternative to what’s been happening the past eight years.”
There is “real thinking debate, discussion, thinking about how to conduct foreign policy,” she said. “It has been made possible by Rowhani, who wants to think things through.”
Many of the staff say that Iran’s “immediate environment is much more important than the broader Middle East,” she said. “They are not so keen on the pursuit of policies of confrontation vis a vis Israel. . . . They are not so keen about Iran’s aggressive policy in Syria.”
Among the institute’s scholars who may be on the rise are Mohamad Vaezi, a former deputy foreign minister who could be in line for the foreign minister’s post, and Mohammad Bagher Nobakht, who could be in line for the post of economics minister, she said.
Farhi predicted that Rowhani will go slowly with his policies with an eye on conservatives who will recoil at sudden major shifts. “Asking for too much change too fast may lead to the other side being too scared and lashing back,” she said.
But the experts agreed that this is a historical moment for Iran. Milani said he interviewed Rowhani for several hours about 15 years ago. “I left the meeting believing he is the most articulate, intelligent leader of Iran I had the opportunity to talk to,” he said.
As for the Ahmadinejad years, he said: “The nightmare is over.”
CORRECTION: A story on the possible direction to be taken by Iran’s new president incorrectly described the publication of a paper by Mohsen Milani for the Center for Strategic Research and also the time he spent interviewing President-elect Hasan Rowhani. The center published Milani's paper without permission, but he subsequently agreed to the publication. His interview with Rowhani lasted several hours, not more than eight hours.