Reflections on the election of Hassan Rohani

Hassan Rohani at an election rally

As I mentioned earlier, while Hassan Rohani’s election as president of Iran was welcomed as a reformer, it was also advised, especially by Binyamin Netanyahu, to “approach with caution”.

As to be expected however, Israel’s very own Delusionist-in-chief, aka President Shimon Peres, went slightly overboard with his hopey-changey wishful thinking:

President Shimon Peres welcomed the election of Hasan Rowhani as Iranian president , saying the relatively moderate cleric could bring about a change in Iran’s nuclear policy.

His comments, made Sunday to Reuters and the Associated Press, cut against the assessment of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said Israelis should not delude themselves into thinking Rowhani will bring about any real change.

Peres said Rowhani, a former nuclear negotiator, would moderate Iran’s drive toward nuclear capability, which Israel fears will be used for military purposes.

“He said he will not go for these extreme policies. I am not sure he specified his policies. But it will be better, I am sure, and that is why the people voted for him,” Peres told Reuters.

I agree that the Iranian people want change for the better but I really don’t know how Peres can be so sure that things really will be better. His delusional thinking can be a danger to Israel’s security.

World leaders expressed similarly hopeful intentions although they kept their statements to a more realistic line:

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said her office would engage with the new leadership to push for a diplomatic way to curb Iran’s nuclear program.

“I remain firmly committed to working with the new Iranian leadership towards a swift diplomatic solution of the nuclear issue,” she said.

[...]

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he would continue to work with Tehran “on issues of importance to the international community and the welfare of the Iranian people.”

“He will continue encouraging Iran to play a constructive role in regional and international affairs,” a press release from his office said.

[...]

US Secretary of State John Kerry said Rowhani now has the opportunity to keep his promises to the Iranian people “to restore and expand freedoms for all Iranians.”

Earlier, the White House congratulated Iranian voters for “their courage in making their voices heard” despite clampdowns that included severe restrictions on the Internet, a key tool of Iran’s opposition. Washington urged Tehran’s leadership to “heed the will of the Iranian people and make responsible choices,” while noting that the US remained open for direct dialogue with Iran.

The Guardian brings us more world reactions (and yet a third way of spelling Rohani):

The US congratulated Rouhani – using his clerical title, “Sayyid” – and pledged to “engage Iran directly” to find a “diplomatic solution that will fully address the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme”. Britain called on him to “set Iran on a different course for the future”.

Arab states sent formal greetings but commentators emphasised the sharp divisions over Tehran’s support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria – which mirrors Saudi Arabia’s backing for the rebels seeking to overthrow him. Syria’s opposition coalition called on Rouhani “to recognise the will of the Syrian people as they persevere in the face of foreign aggression and tyrannical rule”.

The Guardian was typically derisive of Israel’s reaction and motives:

Israel, whose nuclear monopoly in the Middle East is threatened by what Tehran insists is a peaceful nuclear programme, was dismissive. “The international community must not give in to wishful thinking or temptation and loosen the pressure on Iran for it to stop its nuclear programme,” warned Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

[...]

“We could be in for a rethink period on foreign policy,” suggested one veteran Iranian analyst. “But it could be a long process of gradual change rather than a overhaul. Rouhani’s 16 years in the national security council puts him in a very strong position in understanding and handling the policy-formation process and the people and the agencies involved.”

For some observers, Rouhani’s candidacy suggested a parallel with the decision in 1988 to appoint Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani as commander of the army with a view to extricating the country quickly from its bloody eight-year war with Iraq. Rafsanjani was elected president the following year.

In this optimistic view, Rouhani is the right man to lead a new initiative to allow Iran to disengage from its lonely and economically debilitating battle over the nuclear issue. “As the author of Iran’s previous dabbling in nuclear concessions, he can be the fall guy, yet again, for a deal that the [supreme] leader wishes to disavow,” said Suzanne Maloney of the Saban Centre for Middle East Policy.

The key question is how much room for manoeuvre he will be permitted to have by Khamenei, the powerful Revolutionary Guards and intelligence establishment. His cabinet, observers say, will be important to calm fears in the conservative camp that he is not planning a coup against them.

As for media reactions, the Independent has a short round-up, while Boaz Bismuth in Yisrael Hayom (h/t Honest Reporting) reflects the mainstream Israeli position that nothing has really changed, and in another article he cynically calls Iran “the Republic of Khamenei“. Talking about a previous reformist president he says:

In reality, however, what ended up happening was that while the style changed somewhat, the substance remained the same. Behind the scenes, Khatami managed to use his very appealing message of “dialogue among civilizations” as subterfuge, all the while concealing his country’s uranium enrichment program. It was during Khatami’s time in office that the program began to gain momentum.

The article, written before the election results were known, continues:

A Rohani victory would serve as an expression of moderation that the regime wishes to transmit to Washington. It would be a magnificent public relations gambit. While the State Department would try to interpret the events and study the issue anew, the centrifuges would continue to spin, posing an even greater danger. In the event of a Rohani victory, we will have a spiritual leader and a “spiritual” (ruhani means “spiritual” in Hebrew) president.

During Khatami’s presidency, Rohani headed the negotiating team that maintained contact with the West over the nuclear issue. At the time, we did not notice any original breakthrough from this cleric who now champions moderation. In other words, even with Rohani, what was — is what will be.

[...]

In the context of this election, it is important to point out that the Iranian regime is founded upon the principle in which the spiritual leader’s religious authority is bestowed upon him by divine providence — or, to be more exact, the hidden imam. During the absence of the hidden imam, the figure who serves as the basis of the Shiite faith, the spiritual leader is the one who leads the Shiites not only in Iran but throughout the entire globe. It is this basic tenet that motivated Ayatollah Khomeini, the father of the Iranian Revolution, to expand his reach to every possible point worldwide, particularly wherever there are Shiites.

With all due respect to the candidates, a multi-candidate poll is a vote of confidence in the regime. On the other hand, an election with a field of fewer candidates sends the opposite message. This is what prompted a number of Green Movement officials and regime opponents to advocate a boycott of the elections. While Iran is an Islamic republic, it is still a republic whose citizens are supposed to vote.

Read the rest of the article for a very interesting analysis of Iran’s domestic problems, both political and economic.

The Times of Israel explains that the Iranian people voted for change but the new president will have a hard time delivering.

“An Iranian president largely serves as head of government for the supreme leader,” Raz Zimmt, a research fellow at the Alliance Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University told The Times of Israel. “He has  no real prerogatives in foreign policy and his ability to provide solutions on the central issue, the economy, is limited.”

Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s populist economic policies, coupled with crippling Western sanctions, have brought Iran to the brink of financial collapse. The official inflation rate is 32.3 percent (experts say it’s actually much higher) — the steepest in the last 18 years — and the rial, Iran’s currency, has lost half its value in the last year.

During a foreign policy debate between Iran’s presidential candidates, Rowhani made what was seen as a sharp critique of the current leadership’s bullheaded insistence on pursuing a nuclear program at all costs, noting, “It would be nice to see centrifuges turning, provided that the wheels of the country also turn.”

On Friday, Rowhani brazenly declared that he was running “to boot out the extremists,” indicating to Western observers that unlike Ahmadinejad, he seemed to be set on change. But Meir Javedanfar, who teaches modern Iran at Herzliya’s Interdisciplinary Center, said that paradoxically Rowhani could be put to good use by Iran’s conservative decision-makers.

“They could have falsified the elections, but chose not to do so,” Javedanfar said in an interview. “Now the regime can use Rowhani to mend bridges with the West, because the cost of sanctions has become too high.”

[...]

Economically, Rowhani has a freer hand than in foreign policy, Javedanfar said; and he can roll back Ahmadinejad‘s policy of cheap government loans which caused a sharp rise in inflation.

Barry Rubin analyses the Iranian elections with his usual great insight:

Consider this: A stronger man and a more dedicated reformer and moderate than Rowhani, Muhammad Khatami, was president for eight years and did not accomplish a single reform under this regime. Khatami, according to what is being claimed now, broke the power of the radical regime in 1997. That was 16 years ago. And yet the radical regime is still there.

Did the Tehran regime put in a seemingly moderate but actually helpless or compliant front so it could claim moderation and thus stall for time to build nuclear weapons? Or did he masses simply overwhelmed the regime so that his victory was undeniable? Perhaps the regime figured that a second straight election stolen by the regime from the reformists–the previous one was in 2009–would set off a revolt.

[...]

No matter what the regime’s intentions are, the outcome will be this:

1. Rowhani will have little power. Remember that a moderate already served eight years as president and accomplished nothing. [...]

2. A lot of Iranians will be very happy. One big thing they will hope for is better management of the economy.

3. There will be many analysts and politicians and government officials saying that since Iran has now turned in a moderate direction, it must be given a chance to show whether this is true. Rowhani is a very articulate and glib man. He will know how to make things look good in Washington, especially compared to Ahmadinejad’s outrageously radical style.

4. Therefore, the Obama administration will spend the rest of 2013 in exploratory negotiations as Iran moves forward toward nuclear weapons. [...] Russia, Turkey, and China will continue to get waivers on sanctions.

5.  This will have no effect on the U.S. policy in Syria of giving weapons to rebels.

6. What will this mean for the Green Movement (i.e., the reformist forces), some of whom have been put under house arrest? These were the people from whom the 2009 election was stolen. Would Rowhani be like the sincerely reformist president Muhammad Khatami who, despite real efforts, had no successes in his eight years in office?

Rubin doesn’t answer his last question but read his whole article for greater understanding.

Concluding this post, I recommend you read Tom Gross’s article which brings us several very elucidating items about the Iranian elections and its domestic politics which I found highly interesting (h/t Chaim).

First, Iranian attitudes towards religion:

A new survey of Iranians published last Tuesday by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, three days before the elections, found that a large majority of Iranians favor implementing Sharia (Muslim religious) law in Iran – 83 percent are for it as opposed to just 15 % who are against it.

37 % of Iranians said that they believe the Iranian government already adheres to Sharia law “very closely,” while another 45 % say it follows Sharia law “somewhat closely.” Among the 13 % who believe Sharia law is largely not being implemented in Iran, a large majority, 78 %, believe it should be.

And at the end of his article, an item about sexual liberation moderating Iranian politics:

Over the last 30 years, as the mainstream Western media has been preoccupied with the radical policies of the Islamic Republic, the country has undergone a fundamental social and cultural transformation.

While not necessarily positive or negative, Iran’s sexual revolution is certainly unprecedented. Social attitudes have changed so much in the last few decades that many members of the Iranian diaspora are shellshocked when they visit the country: “These days Tehran makes London look like a conservative city,” a British-Iranian acquaintance recently told me upon returning from Tehran. When it comes to sexual mores, Iran is indeed moving in the direction of Britain and the United States — and fast.

Good data on Iranian sexual habits are, not surprisingly, tough to come by. But a considerable amount can be gleaned from the official statistics compiled by the Islamic Republic. Declining birth rates, for example, signal a wider acceptance of contraceptives and other forms of family planning — as well as a deterioration of the traditional role of the family. Over the last two decades, the country has experienced the fastest drop in fertility ever recorded in human history. Iran’s annual population growth rate, meanwhile, has plunged to 1.2 percent in 2012 from 3.9 percent in 1986 — this despite the fact that more than half of Iranians are under age 35.

[...]

Changing attitudes toward marriage and divorce have coincided with a dramatic shift in the way Iranians approach relationships and sex. According to one study cited by a high-ranking Ministry of Youth official in December 2008, a majority of male respondents admitted having had at least one relationship with someone of the opposite sex before marriage. About 13 percent of those “illicit” relationships, moreover, resulted in unwanted pregnancy and abortion — numbers that, while modest, would have been unthinkable a generation ago. It is little wonder, then, that the Ministry of Youth’s research center has warned that “unhealthy relationships and moral degeneration are the leading causes of divorces among the young Iranian couples.”

Meanwhile, the underground sex industry has taken off in the last two decades. In the early 1990s, prostitution existed in most cities and towns — particularly in Tehran — but sex workers were virtually invisible, forced to operate deep underground. Now prostitution is only a wink and a nod away in many towns and cities across the country.

[...]

Of course, it would be a mistake to assume that traditional values have completely vanished. Iran’s patriarchal culture is still strong, and orthodox values are still maintained by traditional social classes, particularly in provincial towns and villages. But at the same time, it would also be a mistake to assume that sexual liberalization has only gained momentum among the urban middle classes.

So what is driving Iran’s sexual revolution? There are a number of potential explanations, including economic factors, urbanization, new communication tools, and the emergence of a highly educated female population — all of which are probably partly responsible for changing attitudes toward sex. At the same time, however, most of these factors are at play in other countries in the region that are not experiencing analogous transitions. (Indeed, a wave of social conservatism is sweeping much of the Middle East, while Iran moves in the opposite direction.) So what is different in Iran? Paradoxically, it is the puritanical state — rigid, out of touch, and dedicated to combating “vice” and promoting “virtue” — that seems to be powering Iran’s emergent liberal streak.

[...]

Maintaining the Islamic character of the country has been one of the regime’s main sources of legitimacy, and as such, there is virtually no facet of private life that is not regulated by its interpretation of Islamic law. (Indeed, clerics regularly issue fatwas on the acceptability of intimate — and sometimes extraordinarily unlikely — sexual scenarios.) But 34 years on, Khomeini’s successor has failed to create a utopian society — a fact that lays bare the moral and ideological bankruptcy of a regime that is already struggling with economic and political crises.

This inconvenient truth is not lost on young people in Iran, where changing sexual habits have become a form of passive resistance.

This is quite an eye-opening article and give us a fascinating insight into the real Iranian domestic politics.

It looks like this new election together with domestic politics might bring an interesting ride.
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3 Responses to Reflections on the election of Hassan Rohani

  1. Andrea says:

    A very good and honest report on Iran to my opinion. People want to change but role of religion is still unchallanged. Sexual mores in Theran are indeed surprisingly very different from what we should expect in an Islamic republic. That really amazed me last time I went there: I was ready to see a black and white country with long beared men and secluded women and I found a competely different atmosphere – the one described above. Yet illusion could be dangerous : sexual emancipation is strictly limited to affluent class and makes young urban exposed to social resentment from rural and suburban people. Rural country is far from experiencing any joyful life.

  2. roxymuzak says:

    The “moderate” Iranian leader was probably involved in the terrorist attack on Jews in Argentina

    http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4394839,00.html

    • anneinpt says:

      Thank you for that link Roxy. I was going to post an update to the post but it slipped my mind.

      No one is surprised at this news – no one with eyes in their head, that is, and no one who doesn’t go all mushy at the thought of a “moderate” Arab or Muslim leader.

      Netanyahu was right when he said that there won’t be any real substantial change in Iran.

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