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Originally published Thursday, June 20, 2013 at 8:48 PM

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Iran’s president-elect may shift country’s policies toward Persian Gulf, Israel

Hasan Rowhani, elected president of Iran last week, has indicated his most important foreign-policy goals are to focus closer to home, in the Persian Gulf region, and to improve relations with Saudi Arabia.

McClatchy foreign staff

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TEHRAN, Iran —

To understand the changes likely to occur under Iran’s new president, Hasan Rowhani, consider this summation of the departing government by a veteran foreign-policy analyst.

Iran’s approach to the world was ideological and focused attention on the Arab-Israeli conflict and Lebanon — issues far from the country’s vital interests, said Davood Hermidas Bavand, a retired diplomat from the era of Shah Reza Pahlavi who has assisted the Islamic Republic leadership with crisis management.

Even as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad largely ignored areas close to home such as Central Asia, Iran’s intervention in Syria on the side of President Bashar Assad has plunged the country into a proxy conflict with Saudi Arabia.

And because of the absence of pragmatic alternatives, when Iran hit a crisis — and it’s in one now in Syria, with the U.S. and Persian Gulf states stepping up arms deliveries to anti-government forces — “people find themselves in a very difficult situation,” Bavand said in an interview.

Rowhani, elected last week by an absolute majority from a field of six candidates, has indicated his most important foreign-policy goals are to focus closer to home, in the Persian Gulf region, and to improve relations with Saudi Arabia.

The Persian Gulf has “strategic significance” for Iran, as well as political and economic importance, Rowhani said Monday at his first news conference as president-elect.

“We are not only neighbors, we are brothers,” Rowhani said of Saudi Arabia. “We have had very close relations, culturally, historically and regionally.”

Key reformist Mohammad Khatami urged supporters to have patience as Rowhani takes the helm and tackles the country’s sanctions-battered economy and tensions with the West. The semiofficial ISNA news agency quoted Khatami, who preceded Ahmadinejad as president, as urging Rowhani’s backers not to expect “miracles.”

Iran’s president cannot set policy on major decisions such as the nuclear program, but can influence views by the ruling clerics.

Unlike Ahmadinejad, who didn’t tolerate criticism or consider alternative courses of action, Rowhani — scheduled to take office Aug. 3 — will arrive with his own think tank in tow. Since 1992, he has headed the Center for Strategic Research, an institute affiliated with the Expediency Council, one of the top bodies in Iran’s complex power structure.

“It is the most important think tank in Iran,” said Trita Parsi, a foreign-affairs scholar who heads the National Iranian American Council and has written two books on negotiations with Iran’s nuclear-enrichment program. “They have some of Iran’s best analysts there.”

Major shift

Mohsen Milani, a professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa, said the think tank “would be the equivalent in Iran” of the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., traditionally closer to the Democratic Party and a sanctuary for Democrats out of government.

He said the main theme of the Center for Strategic Research’s publications was that after eight years of growing isolation under Ahmadinejad, there was an urgent need to reintegrate Iran into the world economy and into international affairs.

“The narrative is of re-integration into the world economy and a rejection of the revolutionary agenda that seeks to change everything in the world,” Milani said, in favor of “a narrative that this is the way the world is, and Iran should find the right place for Iran to play a constructive role.”

Parsi judged Rowhani’s emphasis on Saudi Arabia to be a major shift.

Rarely have relations been as bad between the two countries as in the past eight years, he said. “Rowhani and his allies are in position to significantly reduce tensions with Saudi Arabia,” he said. “And a functioning relationship with Saudi Arabia is essential for an end to the crisis in Syria.”

Tensions are high, with the Saudis refusing to speak to the Iranians in international forums on Syria. If this continues, there is the risk of conflict between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran, possibly opening the way to an even wider war along the main sectarian divide in the Muslim world.

Rowhani did not say how Iran might draw back from its current role in Syria, which includes sending military experts to help Assad’s government direct the war, dispatching trainers to set up a new militia, and providing arms and funds. “The resolution of the issues of Syria is up to the people of Syria,” Rowhani said Monday, adding that Iran wants to see peace and tranquillity restored in Syria.

Training ground

Milani, who’s had a paper published by Rowhani’s think tank, said he did not recall seeing papers on relations with Saudi Arabia in the institute’s publications for the past several years, a possible indication of the political environment. But that doesn’t mean it was not the subject of vigorous discussion.

A Hawaii-based independent scholar who’s closely followed the think tank’s development sees it not only as the fountainhead of the policies Rowhani is likely to adopt, but also as the training ground for future members of his Cabinet.

“When Ahmadinejad became president, the people he fired went to the center,” said Farideh Farhi, adjunct graduate faculty member at the University of Hawaii. “They are people with views. They have an alternative way of thinking about policies, and an alternative to what’s been happening the past eight years.”

There is “debate, discussion, thinking about how to conduct foreign policy,” she said. “It has been made possible by Rowhani, who wants to think things through.”

Among the institute’s scholars who may be on the rise are Mohamad Vaezi, a former deputy foreign minister who could be in line for the foreign minister’s post, and Mohammad Bagher Nobakht, who could be in line for the post of economics minister, she said.

The experts agreed this is a historic moment for Iran. Milani said he interviewed Rowhani for several hours about 15 years ago. “I left the meeting believing he is the most articulate, intelligent leader of Iran I had the opportunity to talk to,” he said.

As for the Ahmadinejad years, he said: “The nightmare is over.”

Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.

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