Rare good news in Iran
To Westerners, so weary of the carefully cultivated arrogance and belligerence of Iran's outgoing president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the fact that a genuinely moderate cleric, Hassan Rouhani, will succeed him can only be taken as encouraging news. What's somewhat surprising is that Iran's all-powerful religious establishment even permitted Rouhani to be on Friday's ballot in the first place. His opponents were all ultra-conservative. And yet Rouhani won a surprisingly easy victory, sending a clear signal - actually, a sharp rebuke - to Ayatollah ali Khamenei that regardless of his unbridled political power, the Iranian people have their own priorities. A much better life is probably at the top of their list, along with better relations with the rest of the world. But can the hoped-for changes actually happen? Iran's economy is in shambles, largely because of sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies, and there are no easy solutions, especially if Iran maintains its quest for nuclear weapons, which Rouhani has defended in the past.Tehran would have to sharply change direction, and it's hard to imagine the ayatollah allowing that to happen, even in the face of last week's election results. The White House was so pleased with Rouhani's victory that it immediately called on the ayatollah and his associates to "heed the will of the Iranian people." Ayatollahs, however, are not in the habit of accommodating Washington's wishes. Actually, what Iran calls a democracy is in fact a cynical exercise in deception because it is totally within Khamenei's power to neutralize any liberalization initiatives the new president might wish to take (and the Iranian people would surely welcome). Whatever reforms Rouhani may promote, they will always have Khamenei and his military supporters standing firmly in their way. The Obama administration saluted Iran's voters for having "the courage in making their voices heard" despite censorship and intimidation, and said Washington is willing to engage the new leadership in yet another bid to find a diplomatic solution to concerns about Tehran's nuclear ambitions. In fact, the United States and its allies simply will not recognize Iran's right, which it has clung to for years, to develop a nuclear weapon. Don't forget that among Rouhani's previous tasks was to represent Iran's side in nuclear negotiations with the West. And Iran's role in the Syrian civil war represents a real obstacle to rapprochement in Washington's eyes. Iran supports the brutal Assad dictatorship in Damascus, both directly and indirectly (through Hezbollah, the anti-Israel, pro-Iran rebel army based in Lebanon). Obama is reluctant to intervene directly on the side of the anti-Assad rebels and has so far rejected the notion of a no-fly zone to aid their cause. However, on Saturday, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi may have changed the equation. He not only said he had cut all diplomatic ties with Syria but went so far as to call for a no-fly zone and demanded that Hezbollah withdraw from fighting - though Russia on Monday said a no-fly zone must not be established. "We stand against Hezbollah in its aggression against the Syrian people," Morsi said. "Hezbollah must leave Syria - these are serious words. There is no space or place for Hezbollah in Syria." Morsi said he was organizing an urgent summit of Arab and other Islamic states to discuss the situation. You can't assess the situation in Syria without also considering the implications of Iran's election results, and that makes Rouhani's triumph all the more intriguing.