The strong showing by the most moderate of the six presidential candidates who were allowed to run in Iran's national elections last week is a sign that the Iranian people — if not the conservative clerics who have final say on policy matters — are ready for a change. The Obama administration should seize the opportunity and attempt to reopen talks with the new president-elect in order to seriously explore whether he can move his country toward resolving the issues surrounding Iran's nuclear program in a way that leads to better relations with the West.
Iran's next president, Hasan Rowhani, won 50.7 percent of the 37 million ballots cast in Friday's election, enough to allow him to avoid a run-off vote. During the campaign, he talked about improving relations with the U.S. and addressing the international community's concerns that Iran is seeking to build nuclear weapons. That conciliatory rhetoric apparently helped prompt millions of Iranians to show up at the polls in the hope Mr. Rowhani can steer the country on a more moderate course that will allow a lifting of international sanctions that are crushing its economy.
But though Mr. Rowhani billed himself as a pragmatic reformer, he's also a consummate insider among the clerics he served for 16 years as secretary to the country's National Security Council and as its top nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005. During that latter period Iran pretended to negotiate limits on the production of fissile materials that could be used to make a bomb while secretly ramping up its capacity to enrich uranium. During the campaign Mr. Rowhani even boasted of having deliberately deceived the international community in order to advance Iran's nuclear ambitions while avoiding harsher sanctions.
Moreover, it's unclear whether Mr. Rowhani could change course on Iran's nuclear program even if he wanted, since the ultimate decisions about the country's direction are made by the country's non-elected supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Kamenei, and the clique of conservative clerics and Revolutionary Guard commanders around him, not by the president. Iranians may have voted overwhelmingly for Mr. Rowhani because he was the candidate perceived as being the most moderate in a field of conservative hard-liners, but it remains to be seen whether he can (or wants to) deliver on any of his promises once he assumes office. In a news conference Monday, Mr. Rowhani said he wants closer relations with the United States — but he ruled out direct talks unless we respect Iran's "nuclear rights," end sanctions and stop "interfering in Iran's domestic politics." That's not so different from the policy of the hard-liner he replaces, President Mahmoud Ahmadinijad.
Even so, the outcome of the vote shows that the people of Iran are interested in closer ties with the international community. And the fact that the results were allowed to stand — unlike in the disputed presidential race four years ago — suggests there is at least a possibility Iran's rulers may be more open to engaging with the U.S. and its allies now that the election is over. But as has so often been the case with Iran, the signals are murky. Some experts are already predicting that given his past record of deception, Mr. Rowhani can't be trusted as a negotiating partner and that that his victory signals nothing more than the ruling clerics' wish to present a less strident face to the world while they continue to make progress on developing a bomb. The Obama administration needs to approach the situation with its eyes wide open to the possibility that Iran could well be set on perpetrating another bait-and-switch maneuver of the sort that worked so well for it in the past.
But it seems equally clear that the majority of ordinary Iranians are far less interested in pursuing nuclear weapons than in rescuing their economy, which suffers from high prices, high unemployment and a plummeting currency. That's what it seems they were voting for last week, and, given the Obama administration's vow to use all possible means, including force, to prevent Iran from getting the bomb, there's at least a chance the ayatollahs who have the final word on such matters will embrace last week's vote as a facing-saving way to reduce that looming threat. But there isn't a lot of time left before some sort of military confrontation become inevitable. That's why the Obama administration needs to move quickly to see whether Iran is really serious about dialogue this time, or whether it's merely talking through its hat once more.