24th Sep 2023


Iran election creates opportunity for better EU ties

  • Ashton and Jalili at recent E3+3 talks in Kazakhstan (Photo:

Hassan Rohani, a moderate cleric, just won Iran's 11th presidential elections.

The result is a surprise and marks the end of the eight-year chapter of outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government.

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Scooping 50.71 percent of votes and an absolute majority, Rohani burst through in the first round despite predictions the vote would go to a run-off on 21 June.

He is not that well known in Iran. But his profile improved dramatically when Mohammad Reza Aref - the only other reformist candidate permitted to run by Iran's religious leaders - withdrew.

Former presidents Mohammad Khatami and Hashemi Rafsanjani also endorsed Rohani, prompting a surge in popular support just 72 hours before the end of campaigning.

By contrast, Rohani's main rivals, the so-called Principalist front, failed to coalesce behind a single name.

Rohani got three times as many votes as his nearest competitor, Tehran mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf.

His other big challenger, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, came third with just 11 percent.

In the Islamic republic, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, in power since 1989, has the final say on security and foreign policy.

But Rohani's win poses questions for the EU and the US on Iran's future direction.

So, who is he?

Rohani is the current head of the Expediency Council's strategic centre, an advisory body to the Supreme Leader.

He is one of Khamenei's two representatives in the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), a key institution in shaping national security policy.

He is also Iran's former chief nuclear negotiator in the E3+3 (France, Germany and UK + China, Russia and the US) talks, a position he held from 2003 to 2005.

Being at once a trusted inside man and a moderate, he is well placed for Khamenei to mandate him to try to improve Iran's image on the world stage.

In any case, foreign policy was the main leitmotif in Rohani's campaign.

He pledged to protect Iran's national interests and recalled his personal contribution to advancing the uranium enrichment programme

But he also highlighted that Ahmadinejad reduced Iran's international allies to a number that does "not exceed the fingers on one hand."

He spoke of rapprochement with regional and international powers.

During televised presidential debates, he criticised Jalili’s provocative approach in the E3+3 process and his failure to stop anti-Iran sanctions by EU countries.

The president-elect - who is well known in EU capitals from his previous nuclear diplomacy - received an extended hand from Europe over the weekend.

Italian foreign minister Emma Bonino said she hopes Italy will renew a “constructive dialogue" with Iran.

Her French counterpart, Laurent Fabius, pledged to work with Rohani both on the nuclear dossier and on Syria.

The British foreign office urged Rohani “to set Iran on a different course for the future" on the nuclear question and on human rights.

Meanwhile, EU foreign policy chief and E3+3 chairman Catherine Ashton promised “to work with the new Iranian leadership towards a swift diplomatic solution of the nuclear issue."

The composition of Rohani's cabinet will be crucial in determining who will influence the tone and the agenda of Iran's new foreign policy.

But the EU's response will also be critical in setting the stage for future developments.

Rohani's victory is a chance for Europe to reconsider its long term strategic interests in Iran instead of conducting relations from the point of view of the nuclear issue alone.

Ashton and the E3 should take the opportunity to re-calibrate their sanctions policy in co-ordination with the US, offering credible incentives to build confidence and to improve prospects for a real diplomatic engagement.

The writer is a visiting fellow at the British-based ECFR think tank


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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