Largely overlooked, chiefly because of the more dramatic strife in Egypt and Syria, has been a significant — and potentially positive — political development in another critically important Middle East nation, Iran.
Recently, Hassan Rouhani, a self-proclaimed moderate, won a stunning victory in the election that determined who would succeed the abrasive and confrontational Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Iran’s president. Rouhani will be inaugurated next month.
To western observers, it was something of a surprise that Iran’s all-powerful religious establishment even permitted Rouhani, who made his moderate positions clear throughout the election campaign, to be on the ballot. And once he won a surprisingly overwhelming victory, Rouhani has not only vowed to ease tensions with Iran’s many critics, he has dared to lecture the nation’s clerics about what he considers their proper role in a democracy.
Iran has serious economic problems due to the stiff economic sanctions imposed by the western powers to discourage its nuclear ambitions, and although Rouhani may be more flexible than his predecessors, these problems nevertheless do not lend themselves to easy solutions.
For the damaging economic sanctions to be lifted, Tehran would have to execute an extremely sharp change in direction, and it’s hard to imagine the country’s supreme leader, the ultra-conservative Ayatollah ali Khamenei, allowing that to happen. Not only that, but Rouhani is on record as supporting his country’s nuclear program.
So pleasing was Rouhani’s victory, and the fact it represented a sharp rebuke to Khamenei by a majority of the Iranian people, that the White House boldly called on the ayatollah to “heed the will of the Iranian people.”
Iran’s democracy is something of an exercise in deception, because it remains totally within Khamenei’s power to scuttle any liberalization steps the newly elected president might wish to take. Still, there’s hope.
The religious leadership affirmed Rouhani’s victory, indicating that he may be given a fair chance to actually carry out his political agenda. But whatever he does, or even tries to do in terms of reform, there will always be the shadow of Khamenei and the Revolutionry Guard hanging over his presidency.
However, Rouhani has made an impressive start that can only encourage Washington and other western capitals.
“In our region, there were some countries who miscalculated their positions, and you have witnessed what happened to them,” he said on state television and radio. “The world is in a transitional mood, and a new order has yet to be established. If we miscalculate our national situation, it will be detrimental for us.”
Somewhat surprisingly, he also said Iran should not hesitate to criticize the Syrian government for some of its actions in its war against rebels seeking to oust it. Although Iran is a major supporter of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, Rouhani warned against a double standard.
“We should not describe as oppressive brutal actions in an enemy country while refraining from calling the same actions oppressive if they take place in a friendly country,” he said. “Brutality must be called brutality.”
The Obama administration applauded Iran’s voters for having “the courage in making their voices heard” despite censorship and intimidation and said it is open to engaging Rouhani in a new effort to resolve its worries that Tehran’s nuclear ambitions go beyond its claim of seeking nuclear capability solely for domestic reasons.
The bottom line: Regardless of who presides in Tehran, Washington and its allies resolutely oppose allowing Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. And they remember that one of Rouhani’s previous jobs was to represent Iran in earlier nuclear negotiations.
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