The election of Hasan Rowhani as president of Iran creates a chance for a diplomatic solution to the standoff over that country’s potential nuclear-weapons program. But a diplomatic solution is far from a sure thing.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of Rowhani’s election is that so many seem surprised. After all, he was widely perceived as the most moderate candidate of the six who were approved by the theocracy that rules Iran. And Iranians evidently elected an even more progressive presidential candidate in 2009 — only to have the election stolen in favor of outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. So it seems logical that voters would opt for “the diplomat sheik,” as Rowhani is nicknamed in Iran.

And these voters have every reason to be more motivated than four years ago. The economy is in shambles, and everyday life has dramatically deteriorated for ordinary Iranians, due in no small part to particularly punishing sanctions applied by nations pressuring Iran to verifiably forsake the development of nuclear weapons.

The sanctions didn’t happen easily. It took deft diplomacy by the Obama administration, which convinced an array of nations that the best way to avoid a military confrontation was through concerted economic pressure.

President Obama would not have been so successful without internationally strategic initial diplomatic outreach to Iran that drew criticism at home. Although he was rebuffed, the approach buffeted Obama’s credentials with other leaders, which was essential for success.

“It was only by being a little more forthright in the beginning that Obama was able to build an international coalition that resulted in all of these sanctions, and quite a bit of unity, which led to what we are seeing today,” Barbara Slavin, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, told an editorial writer.

It’s important to discern what we are — and aren’t — seeing today.

Many Iranians are jubilant over the possibility that their government may modulate its behavior, end the crippling sanctions and ease its isolation.

But what we are not seeing today is a real “reformer,” as some have called Rowhani. Iran didn’t elect Nelson Mandela or Lech Walesa. There’s no mandate for fundamental change. In fact, it’s highly likely that the new president won’t be as progressive as Mohammad Khatami, who was president from 1997 to 2005, or Mir Hossein Mousavi, the candidate widely thought to have won in 2009, who has been under house arrest since 2011.

Instead, Rowhani, present at the creation and one of the longtime leaders of the Islamic Republic, was vetted by the theocracy and deemed an acceptable choice. He’s an establishment figure, not an outsider. A 20-year parliamentarian, Rowhani formerly led Iran’s security council, so he has had direct knowledge and/or involvement in Iran’s internal repression and external support of terrorist organizations like Hezbollah. He has expressed no policy differences regarding Iran’s support of Bashar Assad’s homicidal regime in Syria. And most relevant to the current standoff, he was a former nuclear negotiator who reportedly cheated on the 2003 deal he struck to suspend Iran’s nascent nuclear program. So the degree to which he is a “moderate” or a “reformer” is relative to the even more hard-liners the regime was thought to favor.

Nevertheless, neither side should miss this window of opportunity. As with all negotiations, concessions by both sides will be necessary. But the alternative could be a regional nuclear arms race, or a preemptive strike that could result in yet another major Mideast war.

The United States and its allies should be realistic about Rowhani, although there is reason for some optimism. On Monday, in his first postelection news conference, Rowhani said that the U.S.-Iran rift is “an old wound, which needs to be healed.” And in a campaign video, he stated that “it is good for [nuclear] centrifuges to operate. But it is also important that the country operates as well, and that the wheels of industry are turning.” Rowhani, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Iranians they lead know that those wheels have ground to a halt due to the sanctions. Are they willing to honestly negotiate to end the standoff?


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