The convincing victory of Hassan Rohani, a moderate in Iran’s political spectrum, in the presidential election held on June 14 is good news for Iran, Pakistan-Iran relations, and for Iran’s relations with the rest of the world. Hassan Rohani, who enjoys close links to former President Rafsanjani, another moderate, secured 50.7 per cent of the more than 36 million votes cast, thus winning the election in the first ballot and avoiding a runoff in the presidential race. His victory was a clear indication that the Iranian people wanted a change in favour of moderation in contrast with the extremist policies of outgoing President Ahmadinejad, which had alienated most of the Iranian people, severely damaged Iran’s economy and aggravated Iran’s relations with the leading members of the international community resulting in the imposition of sanctions. The general expectation is that Hassan Rohani will pursue a moderate approach in handling Iran’s internal and external affairs.

I have known President-elect Hassan Rohani since my days as the Pakistan Ambassador to Iran (1997-2003), when I had the privilege of arranging his visit to Pakistan in April 2001 for putting Pakistan-Iran relations back on track. Hassan Rohani was holding at that time the highly important position of the Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and was ranked equivalent to the Foreign Minister. The Supreme National Security Council, which was presided over by the Iranian President, was responsible for taking all strategically important decisions relating to Iran’s foreign affairs and national security. I found Hassan Rohani and his colleagues in SNSC extremely well-informed with deep insight into the strategic issues of the day. They understood the importance of friendly relations between Pakistan and Iran for the security and the economic well being of the two countries.

Pakistan’s relations with Iran had been badly damaged by late 1990s primarily because of their confrontational policies in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, they were caught in a vicious cycle of action and reaction fed by mutual grievances against each other. The need of the hour was for bold thinking to rise above narrow national interests and to take a broader and long-term view of the Pakistan-Iran relations and the situation in Afghanistan. The situation demanded the coordination of the policies of Pakistan and Iran in the interest of durable peace and stability in Afghanistan and the adoption of specific measures at various levels to overcome the damage that had been inflicted on Pakistan-Iran relations in earlier years.

It goes to the credit of Hassan Rohani and his colleagues in the Supreme National Security Council that they fully realised the gravity of the situation in Afghanistan and the need for improvement of Pakistan-Iran relations in the best interest of the two countries. The result was the signing of an agreement in Islamabad in April 2001 by Foreign Minister Sattar and Mr Hassan Rohani, which contained a roadmap for undoing the damage of the past years and strengthening Pakistan-Iran relations in the political, economic, security and cultural fields. Regrettably, however, the Iranian offer to reach an agreement with Pakistan on the coordination of the Afghanistan policies of the two countries during Hassan Rohani’s visit was summarily rejected by Islamabad.

Perhaps, our military establishment thought that the Taliban’s domination in Afghanistan would continue forever, thus ruling out the need for any compromises, howsoever minor they might have been, with Iran and other parties in Afghanistan. Little did it realise that the Taliban government in Afghanistan, which was isolated at regional and international levels and faced serious domestic opposition, was not sustainable in the long run. Of course, our military establishment had no clue of 9/11, which would later upset its calculations and force it to bring about a U-turn in its pro-Taliban policies. The acceptance by Islamabad of the Iranian proposal for the coordination of their Afghanistan policies could possibly have led to the restoration of durable peace and stability in that country and avoided 9/11 and its disastrous consequences for Pakistan.

Pakistan-Iran relations have improved considerably since April 2001, as reflected more recently by the signing of the Pakistan-Iran gas pipeline agreement. But there are still mutual misgivings and mistrust, which need to be removed for the sake of building up bilateral friendly relations and strengthening mutually beneficial cooperation in various fields, including cooperation in the restoration of durable peace in Afghanistan in the post-2014 scenario. Mr Hassan Rohani’s election as the President of Iran augurs well for such cooperation. Let us hope that the new leadership in Pakistan would not miss the window of opportunity, which has been opened by his election.

The way Hassan Rohani dealt with Iran’s negotiations with P5 plus one on Iran’s nuclear programme till 2005 holds out the hope that Iran under his leadership would be able to reach a mutually satisfactory agreement on the issue. Of course, the Western countries would also have to show necessary realism and flexibility for the realisation of this objective. For such an agreement, the West would have to accept Iran’s right under NPT to carry out uranium enrichment and nuclear reprocessing for peaceful purposes. On the other hand, Iran would reconfirm its commitment not to develop or acquire nuclear weapons and would place its nuclear facilities under stringent IAEA safeguards in return for the lifting of all UN Security Council and other sanctions against it. Many Western scholars and former ambassadors have recommended such a grand bargain. Hassan Rohani’s election offers the best hope for a peaceful settlement of this issue on these lines. It would be a pity if the West squandered this opportunity on flimsy pretexts.

Internally also, Iran needs the healing touch of moderation, particularly in the cultural and political fields, to defuse the tensions within the society and give increased role to the voice of the people in the management of national affairs. A pragmatic approach would also be a must for overcoming Iran’s current economic difficulties, which are the result of both the flawed economic policies of the past and the external sanctions against it.

It is true that Khamenei as the Supreme Leader wields the ultimate power in Iran. No major decision on Iran’s internal and external affairs can be taken without his green signal. But Hassan Rohani by urging moderation and pragmatism with the help of his clear public mandate can make a huge difference.

The writer is a retired ambassador and the president of the Lahore Council

for World Affairs.