The election in Iran earlier this month was a shocker: “Rebuke to hard-liners” read one headline. “Iran election yields surprising outcome,” read another. Hassan Rowhani, a “moderate” Shia cleric noted for advocating more constructive relations with the West, including an increase in nuclear transparency, won with more than half the vote. Amid increasing tensions between the West and Iran, Tehran’s support of Bashar Assad in Syria, and fears of a wider Sunni-Shiite war in the Middle East, Rowhani’s election came as welcome news. President Obama commented, “I think it says that the Iranian people want to move in a different direction.”
Some observers, including Iran-obsessed leaders in Israel, responded to the election with skepticism — warning that, whatever Rowhani’s intentions, his scope of action will be severely limited by Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and the hugely powerful Revolutionary Guard. But Rowhani, taking office in August, replaces the crackpot Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The new president’s purposes and power will soon begin to show themselves. Yes, Khamenei and Iran’s military elite will press him from one side. But we must not forget the other side: The responses that Rowhani draws from the wider world will press on him as well.