WASHINGTON — The surprise victory by Iranian cleric Hasan Rowhani in weekend presidential elections offers a possible opening for resolving a dispute with the United States over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, U.S. officials and analysts said on Sunday.
They cautioned that the moderate cleric does not wield the power to enforce changes.
Iran’s most powerful man, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, remains the supreme leader and sets Tehran’s nuclear policy.
Any deal with the West would require his endorsement.
The White House said on Sunday that the election of Mr. Rowhani, a former nuclear negotiator, would be a “potentially hopeful sign” if he lived up to his campaign promises to “come clean” over the nuclear program.
The outcome of the election was considered a rebuke of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s hard-line policies that have led to international sanctions.
But it remains unclear whether Mr. Rowhani’s win will translate to movement on the nuclear issue.
The incoming leader will face many domestic challenges.
First among them is an economy that is suffering from inflation and a weakened currency.
Analysts say both result from international sanctions and economic mismanagement during Ahmadinejad’s eight years in office.
Obama Administration officials have long said the White House is serious about engagement with Iran to end concerns over its nuclear program, which Tehran insists is for peaceful purposes.
Since taking office in 2009, President Obama has twice written directly to Ayatollah Khamenei offering direct engagement, provided Iran shows it will not seek to develop nuclear weapons.
“If he [Mr. Rowhani] is interested in, as he has said in his campaign, mending Iran’s relations with the rest of the world, there is an opportunity to do that,” Mr. Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, told CBS’ Face the Nation.
“But to get to that point, we need him to live up to the obligation on the nuclear program, and if he does, I think there is a great opportunity for Iran and the people of that storied country to have the kind of future they would justifiably want,” he added.
After more than three decades without diplomatic relations, suspicions between Tehran and Washington run deep.
In his initial reaction to the election result, Secretary of State John Kerry urged Mr. Rowhani to keep his election promises, putting pressure on the president-elect to show that he is serious about change.
“In the months ahead, he has the opportunity to keep his promises to the Iranian people,” Mr. Kerry said.
In Tehran, Mr. Rowhani said Sunday that the country’s dire economic problems cannot be solved “overnight.”
He began consulting with the clerically dominated establishment on his policies.
Inflation exceeds 30 percent and unemployment is over 14 percent.
The semi-official ISNA news agency said Mr. Rowhani had discussed inflation, unemployment, and Cabinet choices with Ali Larijani, speaker of Iran’s conservative-dominated Parliament.
“Today we took the first step for cooperation between two branches of power,” Mr. Rowhani was quoted as saying.
The new president will take office in August. He must obtain approval from Parliament of his nominees to direct 18 ministries.
Later on Sunday, state TV said Mr. Rowhani had met with Ayatollah Khamenei, who has final say on all state matters, for the first time since the election.
The report said the ayatollah offered “necessary guidelines” to Mr. Rowhani, but it did not elaborate.
Two of Iran’s close allies, Syria and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, congratulated Mr. Rowhani on his election victory.
Tehran backs President Bashar Assad of Syria and his regime against the rebels who have been seeking for two years to overthrow them.
Hezbollah recently entered the Syrian civil war to bolster the government and the military momentum has shifted to the regime.