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AP Analysis: Iran president may help shield rulers

Monday - 6/17/2013, 5:56am  ET

A supporter of Iranian presidential candidate Hasan Rowhani holds up his poster while celebrating Rowhani's victory, in Tehran, Iran, Saturday, June 15, 2013. Wild celebrations broke out on Tehran streets that were battlefields four years ago as reformist-backed Rowhani capped a stunning surge to claim Iran's presidency on Saturday, throwing open the political order after relentless crackdowns by hard-liners to consolidate and safeguard their grip on power. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

Associated Press

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) -- For a lesson in what Hasan Rowhani's reformist-backed presidency could mean for Iran, a promise Sunday by the ultra-powerful Revolutionary Guard to cooperate with him is a good guide.

Like the rest of Iran's ruling Islamic establishment, the Guard, which has kept a tight lid on any hints of opposition for years, is for the moment embracing Rowhani, even though he is almost certain to return once-silenced moderates into the political fold and restore the voice of liberal-leaning Iranians who danced in the streets after his stunning election victory.

The reason is because -- in one of the more curious twists of Iranian politics -- the opposition's accidental hero Rowhani also may become a lucky charm for the ruling system.

His surprise victory allows the Islamic leadership to seek a bit of legitimacy among liberals and others who felt they exiled off the political map after the crackdowns following massive protests in 2009 over the disputed re-election of the now-exiting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

"They counted my vote!" some Rowhani supporters chanted in a mix of celebration and shock after the announcement of the results from Friday's election.

Rowhani's mild manifesto -- sprinkled with words like "moderation" and "dialogue" -- also could provide a honeymoon period for the leadership as a whole. Factions in Israel and the U.S. that have promoted military options against Iran's nuclear program may find themselves in search of an audience with Rowhani playing the role of tension-easer.

Interviewed on the American CBS TV network, White House chief of staff Denis McDonough called on Rowhani to follow through with his plan to improve relations with the West. "I see it as a potentially hopeful sign," McDonough said.

The ecstatic outpouring of Iranians dancing and celebrating in the streets Saturday night and Sunday reflected the hopes that Rowhani can bring an end to the domination of hard-liners for the past eight years under Ahmadinejad, with arrests against the opposition and restrictions on rights. Many saw the win as a slap to the ruling clerics, sending a message that they cannot keep the opposition bottled up.

Rowhani does have a people-power mandate that certainly will be factored in by Iran's rulers. But the scope of his win -- more than three times of votes of the runner-up -- doesn't give him any extra-credit powers. Iran's presidency is still without the tools to take any major initiatives without clearance from supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei or, by extension, the Revolutionary Guard.

The ruling clerics -- not the president -- hold all the cards in policymaking and make every make decision such as nuclear efforts, dealings with the West or Iran's aid to its ally Bashar Assad in Damascus, who sent Rowhani a congratulations message Sunday that urged for the countries to remain united.

On Sunday, Rowhani had his first meeting as president-elect with Khamenei, who offered "necessary guidelines" to Rowhani, state TV said, without elaborating.

In reaction to the positive vibes, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Sunday against being lulled by "wishful thinking" and urged for increased sanctions to rein in Iran's nuclear ambitions. Some Israeli commentators have even joked -- with a dash of truth -- that Israeli hawks will miss Ahmadinejad as the best salesman for their policies.

The West and allies fear Iran could be moving toward a nuclear weapon. Iranian officials including the 64-year-old Rowhani -- a former nuclear negotiator -- insist the country's only seek reactors for energy and medical use.

"With a moderate in as president instead of Ahmadinejad, Israel has to change its tone," said Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born political analyst based in Israel. "The sell-by date of repeating the same line of 'all options remain on the table' has expired."

The U.S. and other world powers, meanwhile, are likely to move quickly to restart nuclear negotiations, which have failed to make any headway after four rounds since last year. This sets up a potential quandary for Iran.

The current nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, finished a distant third in the election and is something of Rowhani's antithesis, insisting that Iran cannot give an inch to its foes. So far, Iran's negotiating position has been that the West must ease sanctions up front as a first step before anything else can happen.

What the Iranian president can offer is advice and attempt to nudge views in his direction.

Rowhani has been at the negotiating table before as Iran's envoy beginning in 2003, just a year after Tehran's revived nuclear efforts were revealed. Rowhani has been highly critical of Iran's leadership for not showing more nimble tactics and allowing the economic squeeze to become so painful, with inflation now galloping at about 30 percent and critical oil exports cut in half.

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