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Iran: a small window of hope

Professor Nayereh Tohidi, visting scholar at the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies, asks whether president-elect Hassan Rowhani will reset Iran's political course in a hopeful direction.

This article was originally published July 1, 2013 on openDemocracy 5050.

by Nayereh Tohidi

After several years of sadness and pessimism in Iran, many Iranians took to the streets, this time not to protest, but sing and dance in celebration of a tiny window of hope that has opened up with the results of the 11th presidential elections on June 14, 2013.

Under the eight years of Ahmadinejad’s government which enjoyed the full support of the Leader and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps for the first six years, people experienced increasing violation of human rights, especially of women’s rights, more restriction on the media and civil society organizations, a brutal crackdown on the pro-democracy Green Movement in 2009-2011, and new waves of exodus of activists from Iran and further brain drains. Moreover, the rising inflation (41% in 2012),  budget deficit, unemployment, and overall economic hardship caused by the government’s mismanagement and reckless spending on the one hand, and the expanding international sanctions, political isolation, and even a threat of military attack on the other, brought many in Iran to the verge of despair.

The unexpected first-round victory of a moderate conservative cleric, Hassan Rowhani, who ran against five ultra conservatives of mostly military background, has been welcomed at home and internationally as - hopefully - the beginning of the end of the era of erratic hardliners and extremism in Iran. This is because Rowhani ran under a platform for change toward “moderation, hope and prudence” while debunking Ahmadinejad’s domestic and foreign policies. As in most previous presidential elections, the primary drive behind many people’s reluctant participation in this election (after much initial hesitance) was the immediate goal of saving Iran from further troubles by preventing electoral victory of another Ahmadinejad-type of juggernaut, this time embodied in the most hardline candidate, Saeed Jalili. Many perceived Jalili to be the first choice of the establishment, namely the Leader and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

In order to show that Iran’s polity is indeed breaking away from ideological extremism and repression at home, and hostility and belligerence on the international scene, the new President needs to move beyond the style and mannerism he has displayed thus far. He needs to bring about some substantial changes and reforms on domestic, regional and international levels. If Rowhani genuinely wants to make some progressive changes, the big challenge for him is to maintain a delicate balance between the demands of the reformers and progressives (to whose votes he owes his victory) and the structural constraints of a non-democratic regime that has granted limited power to the elected bodies, including the presidency. This is in contrast to the absolute and lifelong rule by the Supreme Leader enshrined in the constitution; who through a close alliance with the IRGC can manipulate the process and outcome of elections. Together, they have tried to maintain a stranglehold on Iran’s political and economic institutions.

To gain legitimacy, governments need both votes of the people and respect for human rights

Domestically, some concrete improvements in the state of human rights, especially women’s rights, freedom of press, and civil liberties, including the rights of religious and ethnic minorities, is the top demand commonly raised not only by the majority of the people who voted for Rowhani, but also by the coalition of reformers led by former President Khatami, and backed by a number of intellectuals, writers and artists such as Sadegh Zibakalam, Alireza Alavitabar, and Manijeh Hekmat. During his campaign, albeit in some vague and general terms, Rowhani promised to “de-securitize” the general “atmosphere,” promote “justice” and “civil rights.”

A widely expected token of good will, as reflected in people’s slogans for many years now, would be the release of all political prisoners, and to end the house arrest of Mir-Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karubi, and Zahra Rahnavard, the symbolic leaders of the Green Movement. As many Iranian advocates of human rights, such as Shirin Ebadi, have correctly argued “governments do not gain their legitimacy merely through votes of the people and ballot boxes. They gain their legitimacy through both votes of the people and respect for human rights. Pretexts for violation of human rights such as cultural relativism, religion and ideology, are not acceptable.”

Other advocates of democracy, such as Haleh Esfandiari, and some progressive clerics and academics such as Mohsen Kadivar, have also warned us that “a big question mark hangs over the future of human rights, democracy and freedom in Iran. The dictatorship of Khamene’i is the main obstacle. There is no room for an independent president or an independent parliament in the office of this Leader. The theocracy of Guardianship of Jurist (wilayat al-faqih) also prevents this.”

Iran’s economic improvement is tied to its foreign policy:

Economic improvement is the other primary concern, as has been emphasized by Rowhani himself. But any success by the new President in this area has become increasingly tied to his success in improving Iran’s foreign policy, and its regional and international relations. Rowhani has been quick in calling for a rapprochement with the US and Britain, and also with Iran’s neighboring countries such as Saudi Arabia.

Yet, as he admitted, the nuclear program and relations between Iran and the US are “a complicated and difficult issue.” Nevertheless, compared to the incendiary and bombastic character of his predecessor, Rowhani’ s calm and mature character, his measured style and mannerism, academic training in law, and his past experience in negotiation over the nuclear issue may have equipped him with what is needed to win the ear of the Leader (Ali Khamenei), and the trust and flexibility of the western counterparts, hence a hope for breaking the deadlock and bringing about a diplomatic solution to the current dangerous tension in the US-Iran relations. As the third presidential debate that focused on foreign policy clearly demonstrated, people’s vote for Rowhani indicated a strong “No” to the government’s approach to international relations and foreign policy, including the nuclear issue.

Although Rowhani won - thanks largely to the vote of the youth aspiring for reform and progress - he has no progressive background, nor has he been known as a reformer. He has been a long term member of the ruling establishment trusted even by the Leader; otherwise he would not have passed the screening of the Guardian Council that vets the presidential candidates. Yet the declining economy and deteriorating domestic, regional and international relations, and the increasing potential for an explosion of the frustrated expectations of the majority of Iranians who are disenchanted with the increasing repression, the widespread moral decadence, lies and corruption under an Islamist theocratic guise, and a sense of humiliation caused by the international isolation, all seem to have brought some smarter elements of the regime, such as Hashemi Rafsanjani and his former advisor, Hassan Rowhani, to their senses, making them ready to push for  some limited reforms and reconciliation at national and international levels.

There are several indications that even the ‘Supreme’ Leader (Ali Khamenei) has realized the gravity of the situation. For one, he invited, for the first time ever, even those opposing the regime to vote in order to “save the country.” Also, to amend his damaged image, he repeated in a few occasions that he does not promote any particular candidate, and no one, even among his family members, would know for whom he was going to cast his vote. Moreover, to prevent further conflicts and fragmentation within the ruling conservatives, the Leader sent an ordinance to the heads of the RGC and all Friday Prayer Imams asking them not to intervene in the election process and not to promote any particular candidate.  The election results (supposedly not manipulated this time) clearly demonstrated that the hardline policies led by the Leader, and embodied in the presidential candidate Saeed Jalili, received only about 11 percent of the vote. It seems, therefore, that even the Leader cannot avoid the impact of such hard realities.

Many opposition members too seem to have reduced their demands by voting for Rowhani. By doing so, they wanted to give the regime one more chance for moderation and reform. The “important point,” as some Iran analysts have argued, “is not that Rowhani's view is right and won in this election. Rather, the critical point is that the Iranian political class continues to be engaged in a conversation about how to govern and address the myriad of challenges facing the country, including external threats. This dynamic cannot and should not be equated with some kind of transition to pluralist democracy. But if the examples of other developing countries that have witnessed real political change provide a useful guide, the lesson is clear: absent a collapse of a regime, even small openings that allow for a reintegration of estranged elites and processes of negotiation might over time yield surprising outcomes.”

Watching the negative consequences of “regime change” through military intervention and occupation by the Western outsiders in Iraq, and more recently, some agonizing trends in the aftermath of revolutions known as the Arab Spring, especially the continuation of a bloody civil war in Syria (in part due to the intervention of regional outsiders such as Iran, Russia, Hezbollah and Saudi Arabia), might have also contributed to a sort of compromise on all-sides in Iran, including many in the opposition to the status quo.  

In order not to disappoint the Iranian voters again, and actually try to nourish the newly gained relative hopefulness; one thing that the new President cannot afford to ignore is the voice and demands of Iran’s majority: the youth and women -  many of whom want substantial change. Perhaps it was in line with this realization that the president-elect Rowhani invited Pegah Ahangarani, a popular 29 year-old actress and film director to the first post-election gathering on June 21. Inviting Ahangarani, who was arrested twice for her work in support of the pro-democracy movement, was a smart post-election gesture. When Ahangarani came close to the podium to present her speech, Rowhani (a 64 year-old cleric) stood up in respect. In a setting unprecedented under the Islamic Republic, Ahangarani, a secular young woman dressed in non-traditional and colorful attire, gave a daring and frank speech that included a simple demand: Please appoint qualified, non-corrupt, competent and accountable people to management and administration positions.

If the new president can bring about concrete improvements, take Ahangarani and other rights activists seriously, and manage, at the very least, to follow the simple yet profound demand made by her, he can reset Iran’s political course in a hopeful direction. This would be a direction that would produce a gradual, non-violent change toward a secular, democratic and pluralistic society that would pursue peaceful international relations with all countries, based on mutual respect and common interests.

This article was published under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial 3.0 licence.
 


About the author:

Dr. Nayereh Tohidi is Professor and former Chair at the Department of Gender and Women Studies, California State University, Northridge. She is currently the founding Director of the Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at CSUN and Visiting Professor at UCLA, School of Education. She is the organizer of the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies Bilingual Lecture Series or Iran, launched in 2002-03 to promote Middle Eastern languages not only as subjects of study but also as vehicles for intellectual communication. Professor Tohidi is a visiting scholar at the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies.

Center for Near Eastern Studies