If he started out as he means to go on, there may be much to celebrate following the convincing election win of Hassan Rouhani in Iran, in June.

Even as he cast his ballot, Rouhani left no doubt he saw himself as challenging Iranian hardliners head-on. “I have come to destroy extremism,” he boldly announced at the polls.

Travelling around the Gulf states over the past two or three years it has become increasingly evident to me that a real and growing fear exists in that region about what Iran might do next.

The Islamic Republic has, since its inception in 1979, often been a volatile and unpredictable neighbour. But now, with unwanted attentions from the West and Israel over its continuing nuclear programme, in addition to its stepping up of support for radical groups while, at home, Iranians suffer enormous deprivation under the yoke of international sanctions, the ongoing situation is causing much consternation in GCC capitals.

Rouhani – who is scheduled to take over the reins of presidential power in August – has already said Iran must abandon the counterproductive, confrontational course pursued by President Ahmadinejad and seek better relations with the West, in order to secure the lifting of international sanctions. And he has pledged to make Iran’s nuclear programme more transparent.
Rouhani will be no pushover for the West, expect him to stand up to any attempts at domination. While he has close ties to the country’s reformist bloc, he is also a seasoned political insider, having served in trusted positions under two reformist presidents, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-97) and Mohammed Khatami (1997-2005), both of whom threw their weight behind his recent presidential bid.

Although the votes are counted and electoral success confirmed, the road ahead for Rouhani will be a rocky one. The collective voice of the Iranian people may be demanding reform but the opinions of the country’s Supreme Leader Ali Al Khamenei, who holds the real constitutional power in the country, are unlikely to have undergone a seismic shift. He will undoubtedly remain a force to be reckoned with.

Nevertheless, Rouhani’s election success heralds a new dawn of opportunity and challenge for both Iran and the West and one much too precious be squandered.

Pat Lancaster, Editor