By Alejandro Freixes, CCNN Head Writer
On Sunday, Hassan Rouhani took the oath of office, officially replacing the former Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The 65-year old cleric is considered less extreme than Ahmadinejad, whose defiance of nuclear power restrictions and statements about destroying Israel caused tremendous international conflict. Rouhani pledges to reduce the tension between Iran and the outside world, and the White House congratulated him, saying it welcomes the opportunity to “resolve the international community’s deep concerns over Iran’s nuclear program.” However, Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is a bit more skeptical, expressing that while there is a new president, “…the goal of the regime has not been replaced.” He still believes, “Iran’s intention is to develop a nuclear capacity and nuclear weapons in order to destroy the State of Israel.”
So, what kind of background does Rouhani have that gives him the sort of experience and knowledge required for such an important office in the Middle East? For starters, he has military experience, as a former commander of the Iranian air defenses where he led several war and defense councils. He was also national security adviser to Iran’s president 13 years before Ahmadinejad took office.
The real question, though, is will Rouhani have enough real power to make a deal with the West on his own? Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian studies and comparative literature at Columbia University, does not think that’s an easy question to answer. On the one hand, Dabashi says that Rouhani will be a “far more powerful president than Ahamadinejad would have ever dreamt – or even, before him, anybody else.” He says this is due to the fact that Rouhani is close to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is Iran’s Supreme Leader. See, it’s not enough to be president in Iran. You need to be buddies with the man who holds the real puppet strings, which Khamenei does. Rouhani is also respected by the “security and military establishment” according to Dabashi.
While this combination of power and a desire to fix Iran’s troublesome image seems like hopeful news, Nazila Fathi, a New York times reporter in Tehran (the capital of Iran) for 10 years, is less certain. He says Rouhani is not a reformist – someone who wants to change the way things are – because he “had backed the violent crackdown against the pro-democracy student movement in 1999 and never formally aligned himself with the reformist camp.” Also, Fathi points that Rouhani holds “little power compared with the authority that the constitution gives Khamenei” and that only if Khamenei “is willing to end international pressure over Iran’s nuclear program” will things change. The good news? “Rouhani provides the perfect opportunity” for Khamenei to make those moves.