Forces of change coming to Iran?



Iran‘s president has called on the committee vetting candidates for next month’s parliamentary elections to allow more reformists to stand. In a televised speech, Hassan Rouhani said parliament was the “house of the people, not a particular faction”, the BBC reports:

Elections would be pointless if there were “no competitors”, he warned. His comments came a day after nine factions said the Guardian Council had approved only 1% of the reformist candidates who had registered to run.

Many were disqualified because they were not considered sufficiently loyal to the ruling system by the committee, which is made up of six judges elected by the conservative-dominated parliament and six clerics appointed by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Most Iranians prefer normalized relations with the U.S., says Abbas Milani, the codirector of the Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution and director of Iranian studies at Stanford University. In everything from the ethics of everyday life and sartorial style,….a majority of Iranians live lives and have political preferences different from the professed pieties and the anti-Americanism of the conservatives, he writes for The New York Times:

For instance, while the regime keeps offering motherhood and large families as the model of an ideal woman, today more than half of college graduates in Iran are women. These women are poets, publishers, entrepreneurs, bus drivers, actors. There is also a sexual revolution going on in Iran where young men and women are finding increasingly creative ways to meet and establish relations in spite of the regime’s policy of gender apartheid.

Iran’s ruling system is steeped in antagonism toward America, and these sentiments routinely find expression in the kind of harassment and humiliation meted out to the U.S. sailors who inadvertently went astray in Iranian waters last week, notes Suzanne Maloney, the deputy director of the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution. The newfound progress between Washington and Tehran will not immediately or inevitably alter the ideology and strategic interests that drive such Iranian behavior, she writes for The Times.

Iran’s regime is beset by some of the most serious infighting since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, notes Scott Lucas, Professor of International Politics at the University of Birmingham:

Hardliners and some conservatives were unsettled by the surprise election of “centrist” President Hassan Rouhani in 2013; now they fear that a centrist bloc – allied with reformists, who have been suppressed within Iran for more than a decade – could gain influence in February’s elections for Parliament and the Assembly of Experts, the body which chooses the Supreme Leader.

Nuke deal done, moderates purged

It was widely assumed that with the end of sanctions, Iran would “join the world” and become a less repressive state, notes Elliott Abrams, a Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations:

To take just one example, the Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo argued in Huffington Post that the nuclear deal created “the opportunity for Iranian civic actors to enable and empower Iran’s civil society space” and “help the country to become more open, transparent and susceptible to international pressure on issues like the death penalty and the imprisonment of civic actors in Iran.” Last summer Reuters carried this story: “Iranian pro-democracy activists, lawyers and artists have thrown their weight behind last month’s nuclear deal with world powers, hoping it will lead to a promised political opening that President Hassan Rouhani has so far failed to deliver.”

But that was the last thing Iran’s rulers had in mind, and they have acted quickly this week to crush such reformist efforts, Abrams observes, citing a Wall Street Journal account:

Days after Iran secured relief from economic sanctions under a contentious nuclear deal, the country’s powerful hard-liners are moving to sideline more moderate leaders who stand to gain from a historic opening with the West.  Almost two-thirds of the 12,000 candidates who applied to run in next month’s parliamentary elections were either disqualified by Iran’s Guardian Council or withdrew.

Actually the picture is even worse: 99% of reformist candidates were rejected, notes Abrams, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

Pessimists say that the deal between Iran and major powers to curb its nuclear capabilities will only enhance Iran’s threat, by lifting economically crippling sanctions that limited its ability to project power directly or through proxies, writes Ehud Eiran, a former Israeli government official and an assistant professor in the University of Haifa’s department of international relations. The deal reduces Iran’s danger in three ways, he contends:

  • First, the existential threat Israel was about to face from an Iranian nuclear weapon is, at a minimum, delayed. It seems reasonable to accept greater Iranian regional reach in exchange for suppressing the possibility of an Iranian nuclear attack. Moreover, the regime could divert little of the deal’s financial dividends from the domestic arena, where they would preserve its legitimacy.
  • Second, opening the channels between Washington and Tehran can facilitate joint action in cases where American, Iranian and indeed even Israeli interests overlap, such as opposing the Islamic State. After all, in the newly chaotic Middle East, there are no friends and enemies, just frenemies: states collide on one front, but cooperate on another. More broadly, talking is always better than shooting. Since the mid-1960s, Washington’s ability to talk to Israel’s foes has benefited the Jewish state and could do so yet again.
  • Finally, the agreement enhances the chances, small as they are, that Iran will fundamentally alter its posture. The agreement is expected to generate greater interaction between Iran and the world as Tehran is readmitted to global networks of trade and finance. If hardliners’ concerns about foreign infiltration are accurate, Iran’s expected participation in the global economic order might moderate, weaken or constrain the current regime.

The Islamic Republic — thanks to religion, history, geography and inept diplomacy — is largely isolated in its neighborhood and is a poor candidate for regional hegemony, writes John Limbert, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for Iran and a career U.S. Foreign Service officer, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at the United States Naval Academy. He was among the American hostages held by Iran from 1979 to 1981:

Iranians are neither Arab nor Turkish (like most of their neighbors), nor are they Sunni (like 85 percent of the Islamic world). They are the Bretons of the Middle East, speaking a language no one understands and venerating saints no one has heard of.  Iran has few friends in its region; its only ones are Syria (a failed state) and Armenia (a landlocked Christian enclave of about three million people).

But even presumed Iranian “reformists,” subscribe to a very ambitious interpretation of Iran’s role in world affairs, as a force committed to the undoing of the present world order, argues Eran Lerman, a former deputy national security adviser at Israel’s national security council and a lecturer at Shalem Academic Center in Jerusalem.

Perhaps it is how they validate a revolution that has failed. Perhaps it serves the need of all totalitarian regimes to have a mortal enemy, he writes for The Times:

But, in any case, it is not they who call the shots – or the hangings. The real Iran, the revolutionary Islamic Republic led by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and controlled by the hard core of the Revolutionary Guards, is a totalitarian state not much impressed by the outward trapping of a “democratic” election.

The real Iranian regime is almost paranoid in its assumption of innate hostility by the West; and at the same time, almost obsessed with destroying Israel. Perhaps it is how they validate a revolution that has failed the Iranian people in every other respect and how they make the people forget the bitter memory of defeat in the war with Iraq.

Perhaps it is their way of asserting the Shia revolution will do what all Sunni regimes have not. Perhaps it serves the need of all totalitarian regimes to have a mortal enemy to fight.

“Iran’s prosperous diaspora must also be part of any equation assessing the extent of the Iranian threat,” Stanford’s Milani adds. “And they are increasingly articulate in advocating pragmatism in Iran. Community-based organizations, groups dedicated to explicating the complexities of Iranian society or facilitating citizen diplomacy, academic centers dedicated to the study of modern Iran are parts of this new diaspora activism.”

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