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Rouhani aide: Better relations with Saudi Arabia a top priority - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Iran's former nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rouhani, a potential front-runner in the presidential race, center right, is greeted by a supporter, in a campaign rally in Tehran, on May 2, 2013 (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

Iran’s former nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rouhani, a potential front-runner in the presidential race, center right, is greeted by a supporter, in a campaign rally in Tehran, on May 2, 2013 (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—In recent years, Iran’s presidential elections have become notorious among observers for the surprises they hold, despite the vetting of all candidates by the country’s Guardian Council and the controls the Iranian government has sought to impose over the country’s media.

This year has been no exception. Although the final list of candidates was dominated by conservatives as many observers and analysts predicted, the run up to the election on June 14 has had its fair share of drama.

This has included the disqualification from the race of former president Hashemi Rafsanjani after he kept everyone guessing with his last-minute registration for candidacy, and the departure from the race of the sole reformist candidate, Mohammad-Reza Aref, early this week.

The chief consequence of these developments has been the emergence of Hassan Rouhani as the last hope for victory in this year’s race for Iran’s moderates and reformists, especially after his endorsement this week by the most influential figures of both political currents, Hashemi Rafsanjani and former president Mohammad Khatami.

The only cleric in the race, Rouhani, who served as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator under Khatami, has indicated that he favors a more open and less confrontational approach to foreign affairs. Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to the deputy manager of his campaign, Morteza Bank, over the phone about Rouhani’s plans to deal with Iran’s foreign policy and economic problems, if elected.

According to Bank, Rouhani views good relations with Iran’s immediate neighbors as his top foreign policy priority. He told Asharq Al-Awsat: “The Persian Gulf region enjoys a special geostrategic and strategic position in Mr. Rouhani’s government.”

He said that, accordingly, “in order to improve relations with the neighboring countries, Saudi Arabia is Rouhani’s top priority.”

Bank pointed to Rouhani’s service as the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council for over a decade and the relationships he has built up with leaders and officials of neighboring states as proof of his ability to bolster relations.

He said: “Mr. Rouhani has very good experience in this matter, as he is the person who initiated and ensured the security agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia was signed.”

Bank added that regional governments would be eager to deal with a moderate government in Tehran, making the chances of success of Rouhani’s outreach more likely.

In outlining Rouhani’s overall foreign policy objectives, Bank said: “This policy is based on three principles: removal of the sanctions, elimination of all threats, and putting an end to all insults against Iran.”

Bank emphasized that Rouhani believed a cooperative approach is necessary to obtain the easing and eventual abolition of sanctions. He explained that removing the sanctions would be achieved only by collaborating and cooperating with the outside world, and especially with the most active and consequential countries, such as Iran’s neighbours in the Gulf, European countries, and the countries that are most active on the international stage.

Bank refused to rule out the possibility of direct talks between the US and Iran, a highly charged issue in both countries.

He said: “In the past few years, the US has taken some initiatives and actions toward establishing a more direct relationship with Iran, and Mr. Rouhani will pay special attention to this endeavor.”

He added that, in general, there would be no specific restrictions on negotiations with other countries and having long term relationships with them, with the exception of Israel.

Accordingly, he said that in a Rouhani administration, there would be no restrictions on a step-by-step negotiations and reciprocal concessions in order to remove the sanctions and threats imposed by any countries, including the US.

Bank added that there is no doubt that the US plays a significant role in the P5+1 Group, which includes the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, and that a Rouhani administration would pay special attention to resolving the dispute.

Bank also argued that there was no reason that a government headed by Rouhani could not protect Iran’s national interests and, at the same, time allay the fears of other states about Iranian intentions in developing nuclear technology.

The issue of the civil war in Syria and Iranian support for the government of Bashar Al-Assad has recently risen to prominence, threatening to eclipse even the torturous negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 over the nuclear issue.

Bank told Asharq Al-Awsat that Rouhani favored a political solution to the crisis, based on resolving sectarian disputes.

He said: “In Mr. Rouhani’s government, people’s interests will be the main concern. There are two major religious groups in Syria that must play special roles in the future government.”

“There are, of course, other religious groups that must participate in the future government, depending on how influential their role is in society. Therefore, we should move in a direction in which the future government of Syria can serve the best interest of all factions, faiths and religions, especially Shi’ites and Sunnis,” he added.

He added that the priority of a Rouhani administration would be to establish a government in Syria based on national consensus.

In response to a question about whether this means Rouhani’s government would not require the continuation of Assad’s government as a precondition for a settlement, Bank said that this would be acceptable if it was agreed by both sides, saying: “The future government [of Syria] will be formed only based on a consensus.”

In regards to Rouhani’s political orientation, Bank portrayed his candidate as a centrist—distinct from both sides of the ideological divide in Iran, but willing to work with both.

He said: “Mr. Rouhani identifies himself as a moderate; this means that he is neither a moderate reformist nor a moderate principlist,” adding, “it can be said that Mr. Rouhani is the representative of a moderate movement that seeks to embrace both reformists and principlists.”

Bank also compared Rouhani to former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, who built a reputation as a pragmatic moderate during his time in and out of office.

According to Bank, Rouhani would deal with Iran’s serious economic problems. These have escalated in line with recent international and American sanctions, leading to high inflation and serious falls in the value of Iran’s currency.

In regards to Rouhani’s policies on price controls and inflation, Bank said: “The first concern about inflation is the cash liquidity, and the first step in this regard will be securing investments so that a part of this cash liquidity will be used as capital investment.”

“Therefore, the first priority in Rouhani’s program is economic security as well as social security, both for the investors and the people.”

He added that the second challenge would be to remove the sanctions on oil and other industries. He argued that by removing the sanctions, the country could open up to the international market and attract investors. This, in turn, will increase the country’s production, reduce unemployment and attract further investment.

The third issue that a Rouhani administration would address is reform the subsidy and banking systems. Bank said that one of Rouhani’s measures will be to reverse some of the policies put in place by outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who oversaw the distribution of cash handouts as part of his reform of the subsidy system.

In contrast, Bank said that a Rouhani government would provide people with goods rather than cash subsidies, in order to reduce inflationary pressures.