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Hassan Rouhani Takes Office, But Not Charge

How to usher in a new old era in Iran

Adam Chandler
August 05, 2013
Iran's newly elected president Hassan Rouhani (C) attends a Jerusalem Day (al-Quds Day) rally on August 2, 2013 in Tehran, Iran.(UPI/Maryam Rahmanian)
Iran's newly elected president Hassan Rouhani (C) attends a Jerusalem Day (al-Quds Day) rally on August 2, 2013 in Tehran, Iran.(UPI/Maryam Rahmanian)

As we all know, one of the joys of the free press, which is not yet available in the Islamic Republic of Iran, is that it allows for a robust, diverse, and sometimes maddening discourse to take place on the big topics of the day. Take for instance, the new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, whose inauguration was heralded by Iran apologists Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett as an upshot of Iran’s vibrant democratic system (a system in which all candidates for office are vetted by a shadowy council answering to one man).:

Beyond misreading Rouhani, reigning Western narratives prevent Western powers from accepting and dealing with the Islamic Republic as a system. Alongside other indicators, Rouhani’s election should tell Westerners this system is more resilient than they recognise.

Unlike the Shah’s Iran, Mubarak’s Egypt, or Jordan’s Hashemite monarchy, the Islamic Republic doesn’t operate in service of the United States or any other foreign power. It has endured decades of US-instigated military, clandestine, and economic pressure, yet still produced better results at alleviating poverty, boosting health and education outcomes, and improving the social status of women than either the Shah’s regime or any of its neighbours, including American allies like Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

As the Leveretts detailed (without irony) the glory of Iranian agency (and left out the public hanging of gay Iranians), President Rouhani reiterated his country’s unshakable support for Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, whose reign has brought about the death of over 100,000 civilians and has been underwritten by Iran, which last week granted Syria a $3.4 billion lifeline.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran aims to strengthen its relations with Syria and will stand by it in facing all challenges,” SANA quoted Rouhani as saying in a report from Tehran. “The deep, strategic and historic relations between the people of Syria and Iran … will not be shaken by any force in the world.”

Meanwhile, Rouhani’s boss, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Taco Supreme in Iran’s Doritos Locos system, is echoing none of Rouhani’s conciliatory language. As Jeffrey Goldberg pointed out, Khamenei recently took to Twitter to mark the new day in Iran with some choice statements against the budding peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

“Muslims shouldn’t let vassal states destroy Palestine make world forget Palestine by creating an atmosphere of artificial silence,” another message read.

The rant moved quickly to a prescriptive phase. “Any operational plan 4 Palestinian cause should be based on ‘All Palestine for all Palestinians. Palestine is from the river to the sea.’”

This is the official position of anti-Semites, by the way. Denying the Jewish people any right at all to a nation-state in their historic homeland is by definition anti-Jewish. But Khamenei isn’t advocating slaughter (at least on Twitter — his regime’s support for terrorism designed to kill civilian Jews is well documented).

So how do we distill all this information? Some are arguing that, despite all the bluster and Iran’s past/continuous and numerous transgressions, we should view the election of Rouhani as an opportunity to approach Iran differently, especially if the international community wants to make headway on the nuclear issue.

The Obama administration might start by showing Iran greater respect: Stop calling it a “pariah state,” for example. The administration could also broadcast plainly that it doesn’t seek regime change in Tehran. The president could promise that as long as nuclear negotiations progress, he will veto any new sanctions passed by Congress and desist from issuing sanctions through executive order. Officials could let it be known how sanctions would be reduced and what security guarantees there would be if an agreement with Iran were reached.

The U.S. has already said that it will accept a limited enrichment capacity in Iran, once the country meets its obligations to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Obama would do well to emphasize this point: The importance of a clear U.S. acknowledgement of what Iran calls its “right to enrich” can’t be overstated, although the U.S. needn’t use that controversial term.

It’s a good point. One manifestation of that philosophy was evident at Rouhani’s inauguration.

Many Iranians and foreign diplomats hope that Rouhani, a former top nuclear negotiator, can strike a more conciliatory tone in [nuclear] negotiations. Those hopes could be seen by the attendance at his swearing in, as the audience included leaders and other representatives from more than 50 countries. It was the first time since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution that foreign dignitaries attended the swearing-in ceremony of an Iranian president.

Nevertheless, if the intense pressure placed on Iran played a part in bringing Rouhani to office, is loosening up now really the right move?

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.