Barbara Slavin writes: Since the surprise election of Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s next president, most expert commentary has focused on the potential to improve US-Iran relations and resolve the long-running dispute over Iran’s nuclear program. However, the replacement of the abrasive Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by a veteran negotiator nicknamed the ‘diplomat sheikh’ could also provide an opportunity to ease growing sectarian tension in the region and to tamp down the civil war in Syria.
During the sixteen years (1989-2005) Rouhani served as secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Iran’s relations with Saudi Arabia improved from the low points of the 1979 revolution and the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. At his first news conference as president-elect on Monday, June 17, Rouhani noted that he had signed a security agreement with the Saudis in 1998 and suggested that repairing the breach with the House of Saud would be a major priority for his administration.
Iran intends to have “friendly and close relations” with neighboring states, especially Saudi Arabia, Rouhani said. In regard to Saudi Arabia–a principal backer of opposition forces battling the Iran-supported Assad regime–Rouhani added, “We are not only neighbors but brothers.”
In the past, both Saudi Arabia and the United States have rejected Iranian participation in Syria peace talks but that attitude may shift with Rouhani in the presidency. Saudi King Abdullah was quick to congratulate Rouhani on his victory.
France, which had vehemently opposed Iran’s presence at a proposed Geneva conference, also appears to have softened its view. “My position is that if he [Rouhani] can be useful, yes, he would be welcome” at the conference, French President Francois Hollande said Tuesday at the G-8 summit in Northern Ireland, Agence France Press reported.
Russia–Bashar al-Assad’s other principal backer–has insisted that Iran attend any new talks. President Barack Obama’s administration, after first opposing this, has waffled, noting that the invitations will come from the United Nations (UN), as though the United States had no say in the matter. [Continue reading…]