President Obama said Monday that the Iranian people have “rebuffed the hardliners and the clerics” in the country by electing a moderate president over the weekend.
“I think it says that the Iranian people want to move in a different direction,” Obama said in an interview with Charlie Rose on PBS.
The Obama administration has been criticized by some for not supporting the “green revolution” that flared up in Iran in 2009 in protest of the reelection of hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The protests fizzled shortly after a government crackdown.
Obama on Monday said the more peaceful election in 2013 was evidence of a “more positive atmosphere” in the country.
“You know, if you contrast this with the violence and suppression that happened in the last presidential election, obviously you have a much more positive atmosphere this time,” he said.
The president added that the election results showed “a hunger within Iran to engage with the international community in a more positive way.”
Moderate candidate Hassan Rouhani won the presidency in an upset victory on Saturday. Rouhani won more than 50 percent of the vote on the first ballot to avoid a run-off, and shortly after received the blessing of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has the final say.
Rouhani was widely viewed as the most friendly candidate toward the West, and civil rights activists are hopeful the new president will bring about greater personal freedoms in the theocratic state.
Still, Obama tempered his optimism for reform in the country, pointing out that Khamenei remains the most powerful figure.
“Mr. Rowhani, who won the election, I think indicated his interest in shifting how Iran approaches many of these international questions, but I think we understand that under their system the supreme leader will be making a lot of decisions,” Obama said. “And so we're going to have to continue to see how this develops and how this evolves over the next several weeks, months, years.”
Obama said U.S. economic sanctions on the country would continue until Iran abandons its pursuit of a nuclear weapon.
“There has to be a serious recognition that the sanctions we put in place, for example, the most powerful sanctions — economic sanctions that have ever been applied against Iran, that those will not be lifted in the absence of significant steps in showing the international community that Iran is not pursuing a nuclear weapon,” Obama said. “And as long as there's an understanding about the basis of the conversation, then I think there's no reason why we shouldn't proceed.”
The president said there were a range of actions the new regime could take that might “normalize” relations with the U.S. Those actions may not lead to direct negotiations with the regime, Obama said, but could potentially lead to discussions through “bilateral channels.”