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Iran’s Rohani vows not to surrender to sanctions

New Iranian President Hassan Rohani, who took the oath of office today, said US-led sanctions would not deter the country from pursuing its nuclear program.

Pledging moderation at home and “removing tensions” abroad, Iran’s new President Hassan Rohani took the oath of office before legislators today in Tehran.

The veteran regime insider who was Iran’s top nuclear negotiator a decade ago vowed to improve the economy and lives of all Iranians.

But it was Rohani’s explicit reference to US-led sanctions and Iran’s controversial nuclear program that drew the loudest applause and will be most closely followed in Washington. As nuclear negotiations over Iran’s program remained deadlocked, both wings of Congress last week took steps to add yet more sanctions, with the House voting overwhelmingly to tighten restrictions.

Iranians will “safeguard their national interests” and “cannot be made to surrender through sanctions; such a people cannot be threatened to war and fighting,” said Rohani, according to a simultaneous translation by state-run PressTV. “The only way for interaction with Iran is a dialogue on an equal footing, confidence-building which should be mutual, and mutual respect as well as reducing antagonism and aggressiveness… I want to clearly express, that if you want the right response [on the nuclear issue], it should not be through the language of sanctions, it should be through the language and discourse of respect,” Rohani said, prompting the loudest applause of his swearing-in speech.

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Tasked with restoring the health and credibility of Iran’s Islamic system after eight years of the often-tumultuous presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Rohani called on divine guidance to help him solve Iran’s problems. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei also called for “maximum cooperation” and support for Rohani’s government from all of Iran’s political factions at a smaller ceremony on Saturday at which Khamenei officially bestowed his endorsement.

But in a reminder this week of who wields ultimate authority in the Islamic Republic, Khamenei also vetoed some of Rohani’s initial cabinet choices. Some of those he rejected served under reformist President Mohammad Khatami, one of the few senior Iranian politicians not to take part in inauguration events, or criticized Khamenei’s violent crackdown on street protests in 2009. Still, through negotiation, Rohani has presented an inclusive cabinet of experienced technocrats who span much of Iran’s political spectrum.

“The balance of power has not changed. The Supreme Leader remains the supreme leader, he’s the final arbiter. But he is not as powerful as he was before,” Nazanin Ansari, the diplomatic editor of Kayhan London newspaper, told BBC World Service Radio. “He is a candidate that is seen inside Iran who has the best chance to take the Islamic Republic out of its current quagmire. And in the West, he is certainly viewed as someone who can open the doors. But he has to prove that he can.”

Rohani’s words

Rohani repeatedly referred to his government as one of “hope and prudence” and said that he would not shy away from tackling “shortcomings and deficiencies.”

“The respected people of Iran voted for moderation and distancing from extremism,” said Rohani, standing at the flower-bedecked podium inside Iran’s cavernous and futuristic pyramid-style parliament building. “The threats will be reduced, and the opportunities must be increased. So moderation insists on moral values, and patience, and compromise.”

Those were all attributes in short supply during the presidency of Mr. Ahmadinejad, whose record was harshly criticized even by fellow hardline conservatives during the campaign leading to the June 14 vote. Running as a centrist and promising reform Rohani got the backing of Mr. Khatami and former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. The new president trounced five conservative candidates and won a surprise first-round victory with just over 50 percent of the vote.

The ascent of Rohani reflects a “rising rationality and a big tendency toward moderation” in Iran, says a Tehran analyst who asked not to be named. “Radicalism is no longer accepted in society.”

Yet it remains unclear how that dynamic will affect nuclear talks, or how far Rohani will be able to recalibrate Iran’s approach with the rest of the world. Khamenei has said in recent weeks that he has not blocked nuclear talks or dealing with the US, but that past experience makes him pessimistic because “Americans are untrustworthy, irrational and dishonest.”

Rohani has a PhD from Scotland, and the candidate he named today for foreign minister – Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s former United Nations ambassador – was educated at the University of Denver. 

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Presidential limits

While recent Iranian presidents have done much to shape Iran’s political space – and have been able to convince Khamenei to move one way or another – they have also always been subject to any limitations Khamenei decided to impose upon them. 

“Over the past two decades, Khamenei has developed several mechanisms to control the presidency and other democratic institutions,” writes Mehdi Khalaji, an Iran specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, in an analysis this week. “Tensions between the president and Supreme Leader are inherent in the structure of the regime, regardless of personality or ideology.”

Still, many of the steps that Rohani vows to take are those that Khamenei will share, at least for now after the Ahmadinejad era saw direct challenges to the leader’s own authority.

And today Rohani had his own indirect reminder for Khamenei when he quoted the leader of Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, as saying that “everything must be based on the people’s vote. That’s the benchmark and the yardstick.”