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Iran Elects Moderate Cleric Hasan Rouhani President


And let's stay in this part of the world. Over the weekend, Iran overwhelmingly elected a new president, a man seen by many as a reformer. More than half the voters in that country opted for this change.

The relatively moderate cleric, Hassan Rouhani, replaces Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who's been in power since 2005. Rouhani campaigned on a message of ending Iran's international isolation.

For reaction from Tehran, we're joined by The New York Times bureau chief there, Thomas Erdbrink.

Thomas, good morning.

THOMAS ERDBRINK: Good morning.

GREENE: So it seems like even some Iranians are surprised by this election outcome. Hasan Rouhani is being described as a moderate, a reformer. I mean, are these descriptions on target?

ERDBRINK: Not exactly. He has definitely been campaigning on a sort of reformist agenda and demanding more freedoms and better relations with the outside world. But Hasan Rouhani is very much part of the fiber of Iran's political landscape, and has been a part of the nucleus of people that rule the Islamic Republic, basically, since its establishment in 1979. So he's definitely not a reformer. He is a man who describes himself as a centrist. And above all, he is a diplomat. He is someone to stand between both parties. They call him the diplomatic sheikh, here in Iran because of his white turban and his pragmatic streak. He has promised to kind of reconciliate between the Iranians who feel very disengaged with their leadership, and the leadership who feel disengaged with their people. And that will probably be his most important role for the coming years.

GREENE: A man known as the diplomatic sheikh: That sounds like a title that really describes the tradition. So should we expect a big change as we look at this country, you know, from countries like the United States?

ERDBRINK: Well, I don't think we should expect a really big change anytime soon. But Mr. Rouhani has said that what needs to happen now is to discuss with those in power in Iran on how to proceed and how to implement changes. We don't know yet how far he is willing to go and, most of all, we don't know yet how much he will be allowed to change. Because in Iran, there is a group of people that form what I like to call the governing establishment: a mix of conservative clerics and military commanders linked to the Revolutionary Guard, that - behind the scenes - decide the direction of the country.

GREENE: And, Thomas, one of the interesting things here: I mean, two-thirds of the population of Iran under age 35. How do young people view him? Do they see him as their candidate, in a way?

ERDBRINK: Well, young people are, of course, have grown very cynical over the years. And I think for now, people have matured. They're not as hopeful and ambitious as they hoped to be. They understand that what they need now are small changes. One thing that young people really would like to see is an end to the morality police, who can arrest women and even men for wearing improper or immodest clothing. Another thing that they would like to see is closure over the protests in 2009. What people have been demanding is the release of the leaders of that Green Movement.

GREENE: One big question in the United States is Iran's nuclear program. Is there a sign that things will change under his leadership when it comes to Iran and the nuclear program?

ERDBRINK: Well, Hassan Rouhani was also a nuclear negotiator. And in that period, he agreed to a voluntary suspension of Iran's controversial uranium enrichment program. In that sense, he is quite the opposite of the current negotiator, Mr. Saeed Jalili, who also ran for the presidency and came in fourth. Now, Mr. Jalili basically turned the elections partly into a referendum over the nuclear case. Yesterday, I spoke with a reformist politician, and he said, well, our interpretation is that with the people voting so clearly for Mr. Rouhani, they also demand a change in the tone over the nuclear program. Now, Hassan Rouhani has already said that he is willing to consider a change of tactics, a way of talking to the United States and other Western powers. But I don't think he is ready to really compromise or give in. In that sense, he is very much, as I said before, a part of the fabric of Iran's political landscape. And he very much will defend Iran's nuclear program just the way previous presidents have defended that.

GREENE: We've been learning about Iran's new president from Thomas Erdbrink. He's the New York Times bureau chief if Tehran. Thomas, thanks so much for joining us.

ERDBRINK: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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