Hassan Rowhani isn't likely to dramatically change the face of Iran overnight. While his campaign speeches promised better relations with the West, he has set strict conditions for those relations, including for the United States to back away from efforts to curb Iran's nuclear program. He has been close to the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for more than 40 years, and so he understands the limits of what can be done under a hard-line regime.
But he was the best choice among the six candidates, in terms of future relations with the West. More importantly, his landslide victory at the polls can be seen as strong evidence the Iranian people would like peaceful relations with the rest of the world and greater freedom at home. One young woman who attended a street celebration after results of the election were announced told NBC, "We have had a very bad image in world over the last eight years — we want our dignity back now."
At the least, we hope this comes in the form of an end to the sort of inflammatory rhetoric that marked the administration of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who talked openly of destroying Israel and denied the Holocaust ever occurred. We hope it comes through economic reforms that can ease some of the nation's burdens, although international sanctions are responsible for many of these.
As president, Rowhani won't have much independent power to wield. He will make decisions that affect the economy, and he will have some influence in other policy areas. However, Khamenei remains the nation's supreme leader, making all the important decisions with regard to international relations.
Some of Rowhani's statements offer reasons to feel encouraged. However, they still have an undercurrent of harshness to them. He has hinted at more cooperation with the United States, but only if the U.S. stops interfering with Iran's nuclear ambitions, stops concerning itself with Iran's internal affairs and ends its "oppressive policies," which could be seen as a reference to the sanctions.
And when he speaks of better relations abroad, Rowhani said he means only with those nations Iran recognizes as legitimate, which would exclude Israel.
Elections tend to bring a sense of hope, particularly when they result in new leadership significantly different from the old. Iran is suffering with double-digit unemployment, a high degree of government corruption and an economy that is sluggish and largely centrally controlled. These are enormous challenges. Internal pressures are bound to push for greater freedoms and reforms that allow the nation's educated population to better succeed. Rowhani's reaction to these pressures will say much about his real intent.
It is easy to celebrate any new leadership that replaces the outrageously belligerent and threatening Ahmadinejad. The United States should do all it can to establish meaningful relations with Rowhani. But the challenges of dealing with a worrisome Iran are far from over.