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Rouhani becomes Iran's president after spiritual leader's endorsement

Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, cleared the final hurdle to taking office on Saturday in Tehran, as the country’s spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei formally endorsed his election victory.

According to the Iranian Constitution, Rouhani’s presidential term officially begins from this point. Unlike most countries, an Iranian president is inaugurated in two stages.

The first stage is endorsement in the presence of the country’s spiritual leader and top military commanders. The second stage, the inauguration ceremony, is to be held in the Iranian capital on Sunday, when Rouhani will be sworn in before deputies in the Milli Majlis, Iran’s parliament, after taking the presidential oath.

Rouhani, 64, unexpectedly beat his rivals in the June 14 presidential elections. He is widely expected to bring moderate reforms to the country, which has been enduring international economic sanctions initiated by the US for several years over its nuclear power program.

Rouhani had campaigned on “restoring the economy, ensuring moral values and cooperating with the world.”

Iran’s new leader has a wealth of political experience. He was a member of the country’s revolutionary movement in the 1970s. After the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Rouhani occupied various governmental positions, and has been a member of the influential Expediency Council and the Council of Experts in the last several years. He also led Iran’s nuclear negotiations under Mohammad Khatami, the former reformist president.

For the first time since the Islamic Revolution, foreign guests have been invited to attend Sunday’s swearing-in ceremony. Senior officials from 52 countries are expected to attend the festivities in Tehran.

“Eleven presidents, eight vice-presidents, two prime ministers, three deputy prime ministers, seven lawmakers and 11 foreign ministers will represent their governments at the presidential inauguration ceremony,” said Abbas Araqchi, a spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry.

Russia will be represented at the inauguration ceremony by State Duma Speaker Sergey Naryshkin, a close ally of President Vladimir Putin.

Cautious change expected

During Iran’s election campaign, experts described Hassan Rouhani as an “anti-Ahmadinejad” candidate, as he expressed a moderate position and was expected to correct the rigorous political course of previous president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Others have argued that Rouhani is not likely to make any major policy U-turns, or to oppose senior Iranian clerics headed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

However, many experts say Rouhani is someone who could lead Iran into a new era with a more liberal political mindset. Normalizing relations with the United States and other world powers would be a top priority for Iran’s new president, they say.

But just a few days ahead of the inauguration, the White House sent a provocative signal to Rouhani on July 31 by approving more sanctions against Iran, aimed at preventing Tehran from gaining a nuclear weapons capability.

Video still from IRINN

As a new president who can bring in fresh ideas and a renewed sense of energy, Rouhani will help non-western countries move closer towards Iran, including Turkey and Saudi Arabia along with some European states, professor Seyed Mohammed Marandi, a political analyst, told RT. 

He also raised doubts that any Iranian president would be able to mend relations with the US. 

“He didn’t promise anything. He said he would work hard to remove the sanctions and he hopes for success in achieving results in the negotiations with the five plus one. Iranians are skeptical as to whether the United States really wants to resolve the issue,” he said.

Netanyahu clashes with Rouhani

Underlining the delicate balance of power within the Iranian government, Rouhani made a conventionally tough statement on Israel ahead of the inauguration.

"In our region there's been a wound for years on the body of the Muslim world under the shadow of the occupation of the holy land of Palestine and the beloved al-Quds [Jerusalem]," Press TV quoted the president-elect as saying.

The ISNA news agency, however, quoted Rouhani as saying that the wound “should be removed.” Later, the agency retracted its initial report – but only after the news made several rounds in the world’s press and provoked a harsh reaction from Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded in a statement: "Even if the Iranians work to deny these comments, this is what the man thinks and [it] reflects the regime's plans."

Rouhani’s comments “should awaken the world from illusions that have been cherished by some after the election in Iran," Netanyahu said, adding: "The true face of Rouhani has been revealed earlier than expected."

More clues about Rouhani’s presidency are likely to emerge during talks planned for mid-August in Tehran with Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin. It is expected that the Russian president will become the first foreign leader to visit Iran after Rouhani’s inauguration.

The presidents are expected to discuss a wide range of international political issues and Russian-Iranian relations, including Russia’s participation in the expansion of Iran’s nuclear energy program and the purchase of Russian S-300 air defense systems - an estimated $800 million deal that was postponed due to the sanctions imposed on Iran.