CAIRO – The election of a moderate Iranian president could help improve relations between Tehran and its Arab neighbors, but many Arabs doubt he can end a sectarian confrontation that has been inflamed by war in Syria.
Iran’s new president, a moderate cleric known for his conciliatory nuclear talks with world powers, will take office carrying the hopes of reformists seeking less repression of social freedoms and a more pragmatic foreign policy.
Hassan Rohani is someone world powers are likely to welcome as the successor to hardline populist incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, hoping he might pursue peaceful ways out of an increasingly tense standoff with Iran over its nuclear activity.
To the surprise of many, Rohani polled just over 50 percent of the votes cast in Friday’s election, according to the interior ministry, good enough for a landslide first-round victory over conservatives close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
“We hope the new Iranian president will be a believer in a political solution in Syria,” said one ambassador at the Arab League in Cairo. “All that we read about Rohani might be grounds for hope – but there is a great difference between election campaigns and what is said once in office.”
In Syria, opposition activists saw little hope for change from Rohani: “The election is cosmetic,” said Omar Al-Hariri from Deraa, where the uprising began during the Arab Spring two years ago.
Muhammed Al-Husseini, from Ahrar Al-Sham in Raqaa, said that power in Iran rested with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. “The powers given to the Iranian president are weak these days,” he said. “They are fake powers.”
In Bahrain, Information Minister Samira Rajab told Reuters: “I think Rohani is one of a team. And anybody who comes from that team will continue the same policy ... We have no more trust in the Iranian regime after what happened in Bahrain.”
In Egypt, Murad Ali, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, said, “We are looking forward to seeing how the winner is going to act.”
“Will there be any change to the policies from the Iranians, especially concerning the Syrian crisis? We are in general open to cooperation with Iran ... However, we do have our concerns ... related to ... their interference in Syrian affairs.”
On the streets of Cairo, however, passions are running high.
Limousine driver Abdelaziz Darwish, 57, had low expectations of any change in Tehran: “All Iranians are the same,” he said.
Standing by his fresh-juice stand, Khaled Fathi, 49, twinned his anger at Iranian involvement in Syria with suspicion of the welcome that President Mohamed Morsi gave earlier this year to Iran’s hardline outgoing president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: “Iran makes problems for us all over the world,” he said.
A group of Lebanese Sunni clerics, visiting Al-Azhar, voiced some hope for change from Rohani.
“Maybe this new president in Iran will be better,” said Sheikh Hassan Abdelrahman from the city of Tripoli.
Sheikh Malik Al-Jdeideh, also from Tripoli, said: “We came to Egypt to tell Mohamed Morsi that we reject Iranian actions in Syria ... But we are working for all religions to be at peace.”
A Gulf envoy at the Arab League said Rohani would have little power and was unlikely, in any case, to differ in his views: “They all aim to export the Iranian revolution to neighboring states.” – Reuters