U.S. calls on Iran to halt support for 'destabilizing forces'

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States on Saturday said it hoped Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s newly re-elected president, will halt his country’s support for “destabilizing forces”, end ballistic missile tests and carry out democratic reforms during his second term.

Supporters of Iran's President Hassan Rouhani celebrate his victory in the presidential elections, in the streets of Tehran, Iran, May 20, 2017. TIMA via REUTERS

“We hope that if Rouhani wanted to change Iran’s relationship with the rest of the world, those are the things he could do,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where he was accompanying President Donald Trump.

Rouhani, a cleric who, with foreign minister Javad Zarif broke the taboo of holding direct talks with the United States and reached an international deal in 2015 to curb Iran’s nuclear program in return for relief from economic sanctions, won 57 percent of the vote in Friday’s election.

He defeated Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline cleric and acolyte of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who holds ultimate power in Iran’s complex, hybrid system of theocratic and republican elements.

Trump’s administration is likely to keep putting pressure on Iran over its weapons programs, as well as what it sees as Tehran’s efforts to destabilize the Middle East, former U.S. officials and analysts said.

“I think the Trump administration will remain pretty consistent on this issue. So I don’t expect any change” in U.S. policy toward Iran, said Reuel Marc Gerecht, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and a former CIA Iran specialist.

Tillerson’s comments at a news conference in Riyadh appeared to reinforce that view, although he left the door open to further talks with Iran.

He said the United States hopes Rouhani will “begin a process of dismantling Iran’s network of terrorism,” and ending its financing of terrorist groups, as well as providing them personnel and logistical support “and everything they provide to these destabilizing forces that exist in this region. We also hope that he puts an end to their ballistic missile testing.”

Despite the nuclear deal, the United States still considers Iran a “state sponsor of terrorism” for its support of groups such as Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite Muslim militia.

“We also hope that he restores the rights of Iranians, for freedom of speech, of organization, so that Iranians can live the life they deserve,” Tillerson said. “That’s what we hope this election will bring.”

Trump is visiting Iran’s main regional rivals, Saudi Arabia and Israel, on his first foreign trip.

When Rouhani was first elected in 2013, it was taken as a sign that Iran’s leaders might be more open to the West and would change the confrontational stance they had taken against the United States and its allies in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

While Khamenei gave Rouhani some leeway to negotiate the nuclear deal, other reforms he sought at home, especially greater political freedoms for Iranians, were stymied by Khamenei and the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Trump, a Republican, has harshly criticized the nuclear accord struck under predecessor President Barack Obama, a Democrat, but he has kept it alive while signaling a desire to confront Iran more directly.

Washington says Tehran’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s civil war, Houthi rebels in Yemen, and the Hezbollah political party and militia in Lebanon contribute to instability in the Middle East.

Ahmad Majidyar, an expert with the Washington-based Middle East Institute, forecast growing tensions between the United States and Iran over Iraq and Syria, where U.S.-backed forces and Iran-supported Shiite Muslim militias are fighting Islamic State.

“Washington and Tehran are de facto allies in the fight against Islamic State,” Majidyar said. “But now ISIS is on the verge of defeat, we see signs of tensions between Iranian backed- militia forces and the U.S. forces,” he said.

By coincidence, the United States on Wednesday faced a deadline for renewing sanctions waivers that would maintain the nuclear deal. Trump decided to do so, but also imposed narrow sanctions against two Iranian defense officials and an Iranian company that the U.S. government said were linked to Iran’s ballistic missile program.

Rouhani’s re-election is likely to make it harder for the Trump administration to galvanize international support for European Union, United Nations sanctions or other tough action, analysts said.

Rouhani and Zarif have presented a more conciliatory face to the world, traveling often to European capitals and in Zarif’s case, conversing easily in fluent English and giving frequent interviews to Western media.

“It makes it much more difficult to isolate Iran internationally when you have a foreign minister like Zarif,” said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

Without sanctions such as those that slashed Iran’s oil revenues and barred it from the international financial system, which were effective because China and Iran’s other Asian oil customers cooperated, the U.S. is left with more targeted measures against individuals, companies or organizations that assist in Iran’s ballistic missile program or are found to have violated human rights.

“The last thing the Chinese are interested in doing is enacting new sanctions against Iran,” Sadjadpour said.

(This story corrects to Foundation for Defense of Democracies instead of conservative Foundation for Defense of Democracy, paragraph 6)

Reporting By Yeganeh Torbati and Jonathan Landay in Washington and Steve Holland in Riyadh; Editing by John Walcott and Grant McCool