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2013-06-17

Iran Elects Moderate President Hassan Rouhani — Will U.S. Respond by Easing Crippling Sanctions?

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In what is being hailed as a victory for reform and moderation inside Iran, the cleric Hassan Rouhani has won the Iranian presidential election. A former nuclear negotiator, Rouhani has called for greater engagement with Western countries, while urging respect for Iran’s right to nuclear energy. Reza Marashi of the National Iranian American Council says Rouhani’s win marks a victory for Iran’s "Green Movement" and one that puts the onus for diplomacy on the U.S. after years of crippling economic sanctions. "It firmly puts the ball back in Washington’s court," Marashi says. "You say you want a moderate voice? Here you have a former nuclear negotiator that, by all accounts, is tough but fair, somebody that the West can do business with. Now we’re going to see."

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In what’s being hailed as a victory for reform and moderation, the cleric Hassan Rouhani has won Iran’s presidential election. Some 72 percent of the country’s 50 million eligible voters cast ballots to determine who would replace conservative hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Rouhani secured just over 50 percent of the vote. His nearest rival was conservative Tehran Mayor Mohammad Qalibaf, a long way behind with less than 16 percent.

Rouhani has pledged greater engagement with Western powers, but also urged the world to, quote, "acknowledge the rights" of Iran. His main campaign promise was to try to ease international sanctions imposed on Iran over its nuclear program. Prior to running for the presidency, Rouhani held several parliamentary posts and served as chief nuclear negotiator. As president, he’ll run the economy and wield influence in other spheres, but it’s the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who oversees matters of national security.

Shortly after winning Saturday’s election, Rouhani spoke on state television.

PRESIDENT-ELECT HASSAN ROUHANI: [translated] Proud nation of Iran, I congratulate you on your epic presence, your committed and meaningful involvement in the elections, on your fulfillment of your religious and national duty response to the call of the leader of the revolution. Without a doubt, the real winner of this election is you, the people, who, with consciousness, peace and hope, placed your hearts into the hands of our all-knowing and mighty God. You have given trust in religious democracy a high position and journey towards respect and national interest and a governance that seeks to be moderate, correct and measured.

AMY GOODMAN: Iran’s presidential campaign saw thousands rallying in favor of reforms, including the release of political prisoners. The country’s 2009 election was followed by a brutal crackdown against mass protests over the disputed re-election of President Ahmadinejad, who’s leaving power after exhausting the two-term limit. After Rouhani’s victory was announced, Iranians erupted into street parties not seen in many years.

IRANIAN MAN: [translated] Rouhani, on behalf of all the young people and those who voted for him, I hope he will fulfill his promises—that is, to recover the currency value of the rial, to resume the national dignity of Iran, and to pay attention to unemployment rate and other issues.

AMY GOODMAN: The United States said it respected the vote and is, quote, "ready to engage directly" with Iran over its disputed nuclear program. However, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said countries should not let up pressure on Iran to curb its nuclear efforts.

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: The Iran’s ruler, the so-called supreme leader, is the one who determines the nuclear policy, and not the president. The more pressure exerted on Iran, the greater the chances to bring an end to Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Iran will be judged by its actions. If Iran continues to insist on developing its nuclear program—nuclear weapons program, the end result must be made clear: One way or another, it will be stopped.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we go to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by Reza Marashi, research director at the National Iranian American Council.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Can you first respond to the victory of Rouhani?

REZA MARASHI: Sure, and thanks very much for having me.

I think that Rouhani’s victory in the 2013 Iranian presidential election was a victory for hope and change. That’s what the Iranian people went to the ballot boxes for, understanding full well that bringing about the kind of political, economic and social changes that they seek is going to be a marathon and not a sprint. They’ve had a reformist president for eight years. They’ve had a more hardline conservative president for eight years. And so they fully understand the difference between the two. And I think what you saw a couple of days ago in the election is a manifestation of the Green Movement, a civil rights movement in Iran, attempting to hold their government accountable.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you give us some of his background? Talk about who he is and how he ended up winning the presidency of Iran.

REZA MARASHI: Sure. I think he’s somebody that was a part of the revolutionary movement in 1979 from the outset, a close confidant to Ayatollah Khomeini, who was one of the leaders, if not the leader, of the revolution. And from that time, he’s always been close to the centers of power. He’s had a positive working relationship with former President Rafsanjani, a positive relationship with former President Khatami, and he does have a positive working relationship with the supreme leader, Mr. Ali Khamenei, even though they might disagree from time to time on certain issues. He has held numerous important positions within the Iranian system, you know, from member of Parliament to senior decision maker during the Iran-Iraq War, to chief nuclear negotiator. And now, as he enters the presidency at a time when Iran faces unprecedented economic pressure and unprecedented economic mismanagement at home, he certainly has a full plate. But I think at the end of the day, he understands, just like the Iranian people do, that it’s going to be a marathon and not a sprint in an effort to bring about the kind of changes that I think they all want to bring about.

AMY GOODMAN: Who are his supporters? And did he win because the many conservative candidates were split?

REZA MARASHI: I think that goes a long way to explaining why he might have been able to have such a resounding victory in the first round of the election, over 50 percent of the vote. There were numerous conservative candidates that ran, and that probably helped split the conservative vote in the recent election. But that being said, at the end of the day, reformists and centrists, if you will, created an alliance, only days before the election, in an effort to boost Mr. Rouhani’s chances. And I think when former presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami came out and publicly supported Mr. Rouhani and encouraged the Iranian people to go to the polls and vote for moderation, which Mr. Rouhani ran his campaign on, that was probably the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back and helped catapult him to the presidency.

AMY GOODMAN: Israeli President Shimon Peres said the newly elected Iranian president may bring change to Iran’s nuclear programs.

PRESIDENT SHIMON PERES: He says he will not go for these extreme policies. I am not sure that he specified what will be his policies, but it will be better, I am sure. And that is the reason why the people voted for him. And it surprised all the experts and all the prophets. And that is really intriguing me. Why? Because apparently there are hidden forces and strength that were unseen or unestimated at time, and the carriers of this hidden strength are the people.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Israeli President Shimon Peres. Reza, your response?

REZA MARASHI: I think he made a very salient point, which is, you know, perhaps folks in the West and other countries surrounding Iran in the region, Europe, as well, didn’t consider just how important the Iranian people are to this process and didn’t consider the fact that the Iranian people would prefer to bring about the kind of changes that they seek without bloodshed. And so, that being said, this is a positive development as it pertains to Iran’s nuclear program, because if you don’t have somebody going out and saying negative things about Israel, it makes the diplomatic process, which is all about details, the little things, if you will, far more easier to digest and far more easier to sell at home, whether you’re in Washington, Tel Aviv, Tehran or Brussels.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the effect that the sanctions have had? I wanted to play for you a clip of U.S. Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen, who told Al Arabiya that sanctions against Iran are justified.

DAVID COHEN: The sanctions on Iran are hurting Iran’s ability to support its malicious and malign activity around the world. It is hurting their ability to support Hezbollah, for instance. It’s hurting their ability to support Hamas. And it’s hurting their ability to support the Syrian government, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Reza Marashi, your response?

REZA MARASHI: I don’t think anybody disputes the fact that economic sanctions are hurting the Iranian government. But more importantly—and I think this is something that Mr. Cohen has not acknowledged, at least in that interview or in any other interview that I’ve seen—is they’re overwhelmingly hurting the Iranian people. And I’d argue that these are not unintended consequences. People know full well, whether they’re in Washington, Brussels, Tel Aviv or anywhere else, that it’s always the innocent people that get hit first. It’s not rocket science when it comes to this stuff.

This is what makes Mr. Rouhani’s election so important at the end of the day, as now it firmly puts the ball back in Washington’s court. You say you want a moderate voice? You say you’re willing to put sanctions relief on the table. Well, here you have a former nuclear negotiator that, by all accounts, according to European diplomats, is tough but fair and somebody that the West can do business with. Now we’re going to see, because, at the end of the day, sanctions aren’t meant to punish the Iranian people or punish the regime indiscriminately. They’re meant to sharpen the Iranian regime’s focus and create leverage that can be used at the negotiating table. Well, now is the best time that we’ve had, since Barack Obama entered the White House, to use that leverage, and that’s what makes the ball in Washington’s court.

AMY GOODMAN: Reza, do you consider this a Green victory?

REZA MARASHI: I do. I think the Green Movement was instrumental to bringing Mr. Rouhani into the presidency, and it wouldn’t have happened without them. There’s a lot of mixed opinions, if you will, about what the Green Movement is, but I think something that most folks can agree on is that it’s a civil rights movement that are pushing for political, economic and social changes that, frankly, are long overdue. And the Iranian people demonstrated that they are fully aware, far more than anybody outside of the country, that they have limited opportunities to hold their government accountable and push for these peaceful kind of changes without bloodshed, and they actively took advantage of this opportunity. And I think that should be respected.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about the relationship between Rouhani, between the president, and the supreme leader, Khamenei?

REZA MARASHI: That’s an important question, Amy. I think, at the end of the day, with them being both politicians, they’re not going to agree on everything. But they’ve had a positive working relationship in the past. It’s not been perfect. It’s not been spotless. But I feel like the supreme leader understands that this is somebody that he could potentially do business with. And this is somebody, at the end of the day, the supreme leader knows, that the West can do business with. So I think it goes a long way in showing that Iran is willing to have these kinds of conversations. It doesn’t guarantee that the supreme leader, President-elect Rouhani or anybody else in the Iranian system is going to sign on the dotted line if any deal is put in front of them, but I do think it means that the sharpened focus will allow them to seriously consider a fair deal or the right deal, if it’s put in front of them. And now we’re going to see whether or not the same can be said of Washington.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Rouhani’s history as a nuclear negotiator, what that means?

REZA MARASHI: I think it means he has a very firm understanding of the issues. He has a firm understanding of the players at the table. And he’ll get caught up to speed on whatever things he may or may not be aware of. I mean, he’s been a part of the system from the time that he left his post as chief nuclear negotiator until now. And I think it’s going to make it, A, more digestible in the West, because here you have a moderate cleric that’s blowing kisses to millions of Iranians that just recently elected him, but also—

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead. Keep going.

REZA MARASHI: But yeah, the—and at the end of the day, I also think that it presents a very unique opportunity, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Reza Marashi, I want to thank you very much for being with us, research director at the National Iranian American Council.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’re going to Hong Kong. There was a protest over the weekend in support of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. We’ll also speak with a Hong Kong legislator who specializes in information technology. Stay with us.

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