In the storm-tossed Middle East, suddenly and unexpectedly thereís a silver lining in a most unlikely place, Iran.
For years, the United States and its allies have been treated as Iranís enemies and have had little choice but to accept that status. With the bellicose Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president of Iran for eight years, Washington and its friends had to endure insults and hostility while fretting about Iranís controversial nuclear ambitions.
The rift over the nuclear issue was so serious ó and so hopeless ó that the western nations felt their only recourse was to impose increasingly damaging economic sanctions on Iran. It is at least conceivable that the effects of these sanctions contributed significantly to the pending change of command in Teheran.
For all his bluster on international matters, Ahmadinejadís behavior at home was also so controversial that a rift developed between him and Ayotollah Ali Khamenei, Iranís supreme leader. Although he was ineligible to run for a third four-year term, Ahmadinejadís diminished popularity at home surely contributed to the victory earlier this month of an avowed moderate, Hassan Rouhani, who becomes Iranís president on Aug. 3.
Rouhani, in direct contrast to Ahmadinejad, has promised to engage with the west while allowing greater political freedom at home. Thatís certainly a pledge to be welcomed (if cautiously) by those nations frustrated by Ahmadinejadís contentious approach to negotiations, particularly over the issue of Iranís nuclear program.
Rouhaniís huge victory margin caught many by surprise, especially since many veteran observers of Iranian politics had expected the religious establishment (led by the ayotollah) to use its authority to deny him a place on the ballot because of his moderate views.
In his campaign, Rouhani had emphasized the importance he gave to the notion of listening to the Iranian majority, which is something the establishment hasnít done. There have been clear signals for some time now that the majority was unhappy with the way the country has been ruled, so his position no doubt won him many votes.
Rouhani also made it clear heís determined that Iran will avoid the kind of destructive turmoil thatís been happening all round the area.
ďIn our region, there were some countries who miscalculated their positions, and you have witnessed what happened to them,Ē he said in a televised speech. ďThe world is in a transitional mood, and a new order has yet to be established.Ē
Then he added a warning: ďIf we miscalculate our national situation, it will be detrimental for us.Ē
Perhaps his most surprising remarks had to do with the situation in neighboring Syria, where Iran has been a major supporter of the embattled president, Bashar al-Assad. Rouhani warned the Iranian people to avoid embracing a double standard in respect to the brutality thatís been occurring on both sides of the Syrian civil war.
ďWe should not describe as oppressive brutal actions in an enemy country while refraining from calling the same actions oppressive if they take place in a friendly country,Ē he said. ďBrutality must be called brutality.Ē
Then he summed up his thinking: ďThe majority Ö voted for moderation, collective wisdom, insight and consultation. Everybody should accept the peopleís vote ó the government should accept the peopleís vote. The people have chosen a new path.Ē
Only time will tell whether Rouhaniís promising beginning delivers a welcome change in the relations between Tehran and Washington, or if the extremely conservative religious establishment will tolerate his push for moderation. And thereís always the reminder, provided most painfully by Egypt, that good beginnings donít guarantee good endings.