Will Iran change after Hassan Rowhani, the moderate conservative, replaces extremist President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?
We must not jump to conclusions when it comes to Rowhani. During his rule, we might witness the breakthrough, which we have long waited for, to end the longest and most dangerous tension in the region.
But he might also be a mere symbol with no real authorities, like former president Mohammed Khatami, who despite his popularity was humiliated by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Khamenei had shut down dailies that supported Khatami and refused to release detainees from Khatami's camp. The only achievement Khatami was allowed to score was sending a wrestling team to the United States.
History with the Saudis
On a positive note, the Saudis know the new president well. He's had an important role in Iran’s relations with Riyadh. During the mid 90s, he signed a security agreement with late interior minister Prince Nayef Bin Abdelaziz.
Rowhani, who was at the time the intelligence chief, signed the "Nayef-Rowhani" agreement in which Iran's government pledged not to interfere inthe domestic affairs of Gulf countries, handed over some Saudis accused in terrorism cases and suspended support to foreign groups hostile to Gulf countries. The agreement also led Riyadh to improve its relations with Tehran and to stop its drives its campaigns against the Iranians and later embassies were reopened.
And so, when Rowhani put the improvement of relations with Saudi Arabia on the top of his electoral promises, he knew that most of the Iranian people were in fact looking forward to restoring stable relations with the Arab world and ending the state of hostility and proxy wars which dominated most of Ahmedinejad's years in power.
In an interview with the pan-Arab Asharq al-Awsat daily, Rowhani said: "As for Saudi Arabia, I plan to turn the rivalry that has unfortunately increased in recent years into respect and cooperation." It's a positive statement that comes from an old friend of the Saudis and from someone who takes over as president during the most dangerous phase of Iran's relations with the region and the world.
That is our optimistic feeling towards Rowhani’s election. But our concerns are in the opposite direction. The history of Iran's relations with Saudi Arabia has been mostly aggressive ever since a series of confrontations: the Mecca incident in the 80s, the al-Khobar bombing in the 90s, the plot to overthrow Bahrain’s regime two years ago, conspiring to assassinate ambassador Adel al-Jobair in Washington, discovering Iranian spy cells this year, arming the Yemeni Houthi rebels against Saudi Arabia and supporting and engaging in military activity in neighboring countries.
We are aware that Rowhani himself cannot make a new Iran because a strong inner circle made up of the Supreme Leader and the revolutionary guards governs the country. But the new president may have the capability to alter the mentality of Iran's leadership towards avoiding partly inevitable clashes, and so move towards regional cooperation and endingthe sectarian conflict between the two sides.
This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on June 17, 2013. http://aawsat.com/leader.asp?section=3&issueno=12620&article=732703#.Ub6YC0A_vnk
Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today.