By any yardstick, the resounding victory by moderate cleric Hassan Rowhani in the Iranian presidential election was a welcome surprise. It had been widely believed the poll would be won by a hard-line candidate who would be even more difficult to deal with than the outgoing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Yet again, however, the Iranian people seized the opportunity to express their disapproval of their country's rulers. Duly, American officials talked of a potentially hopeful sign for improved relations with the West, especially in relation to a breaking of the impasse over Iran's disputed nuclear programme.

Yet even before Dr Rowhani had his feet under the presidential desk, the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was warning against being lulled by "wishful thinking", and urging increased sanctions to rein in Iran's nuclear ambitions. This was a regrettably discordant response. It appeared as if Mr Netanyahu, for his own political reasons, was determined to continue to portray Iran in the darkest of terms whatever the reality.

This was not the time for that. It was time to consider the implications of a new leader who was promising a "path of moderation" that included greater openness over Tehran's nuclear programme and overtures to Washington.

It may yet be that this is a false dawn. Iran's establishment, an alliance between the ruling clerics and the powerful Revolutionary Guard, still sets the agenda on major decisions, such as the nuclear programme and dealings with the West. How far Dr Rowhani is able to pursue his agenda will depend on how much the theocracy, especially the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, wants to endorse it. Nonetheless, there are grounds for cautious hope.


Dr Rowhani has people power on his side. He has also, for the moment at least, a pledge of co-operation from the Revolutionary Guard. It could be that his victory will persuade the Islamic establishment that fighting a mood for change by continuing to stamp out all signs of opposition is becoming untenable. It may conclude that this policy, which hardened with the crackdown against the Green Movement protests over the re-election of Mr Ahmadinejad in 2009, may even be emboldening dissent and may, ultimately, undermine the very structure established by the Iranian revolution.

Aside from a thirst for greater personal liberty, the support for the new President indicated that Western sanctions, imposed in response to Iran's stand on its nuclear programme, are biting hard. Dr Rowhani has responsibility for the economy, which has been paralysed by a loss of oil sales, isolation from international banking systems, and the steep decline in the value of the Iranian currency. A lessening of sanctions represents the quickest recovery route. But that will happen only if Iran shows a greater willingness to engage meaningfully with the West over its nuclear programme. Since last year, four negotiating rounds have failed.

Dr Rowhani will help matters here, if only because the bombast of Mr Ahmadinejad will be succeeded by a more measured and outreaching dialogue. Greater openness would be a welcome first step towards ending the stand-off. His experience as a nuclear negotiator under former reformist president Mohammed Khatami is another plus. As Iran's first nuclear envoy, from 2003 to 2005, he oversaw a period of intense deal-making with the West.

Mr Khatami's presidency offers a cautionary note, however. His attempts at political reform came to naught when they were resisted by hard-liners allied with the Supreme Leader. Dr Rowhani risks that fate if he pushes too hard. It is too early, however, to assume this will be his lot. Or for churlish responses like that of Mr Netanyahu.