Responding to Iran

Responding to Iran

How can reforms be implemented in Iran without breaking from the Islamic system? That is the complex but necessary challenge facing Iran’s president-elect, Hassan Rohani.

Rohani will have to please both sides. On one end, there is the regime from which he hails. It seeks the preservation of the status quo. On the other, there are the Iranian people, or more specifically, the 18 million Iranians – 50.7 percent of voters – who cast their ballots for him. They desire change, particularly in the economic realm. (There is a 32 percent inflation rate in Iran, and the value of the rial has dropped by more than 60 percent over the last two years.)

Rohani’s two predecessors in the presidency, Mohammad Khatami and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had different styles. Khatami was moderate and Ahmadinejad was conservative.

Things didn’t work out between Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and either Khatami or Ahmadinejad. Khatami quickly succumbed to Khamenei’s dictates, and Iranians who had voted for him began calling him a coward. In his second term, Ahmadinejad tried to take an independent stance on a number of issues, including Iran’s nuclear program. It’s no wonder, then, that over the last two years Ahmadinejad became a lame duck, out of favor with the regime.

Rohani has one advantage over his predecessors. Khamenei accepts him. Khamenei, 73, became ayatollah in 1989, after the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Khamenei has ruled Iran for 24 years. Only the sultan of Oman, Qaboos bin Said Al Said, has been in power longer.

Rohani will know how to deal with Khamenei, people in Iran say, and that is arousing hope among Iranians. But there is still a long road to true change in Iran, particularly because Rohani is not interested in changing Iran. He wants instead to improve the Islamic model. How? Rohani thinks it can be done by a change in style, shunning extremism and smiling at the West. Under Rohani, Iran will become an advocate of peace. At this rate, don’t be surprised if in a few years Rohani is among the candidates for the Nobel Peace Prize.

In other words, Rohani is going to do everything that Khamenei can’t. So how will they get along? “My government won’t be one of compromise and surrender,” Rohani declared. Those words were music to Khamenei’s ears. A moderate Iranian? Rohani doesn’t plan on cutting Iran’s support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, something that Rohani considers to be a national interest. It’s safe to assume that the reported 4,000 elite Iranian troops on their way to Syria won’t be turning around and coming home to their families because of the election results.

Foreign ministries in Western nations have sounded optimistic since Rohani’s victory. This optimism, by the way, is legitimate. Since the shah was ousted in 1979, the West has been eagerly awaiting the downfall of the Islamic regime. But Western governments know well that great hopes in the Middle East generally breed great disappointments.

Persian radio might start suddenly broadcasting pleasant tunes. Holocaust deniers may disappear from the stage, and the West could find itself with a partner that is happy to negotiate. Rohani might also make trips to Paris or Rome, for example, as part of an Iranian charm offensive.

There is no doubt that there was no better outcome than a Rohani victory for Khamenei. It could enable a change of tactics in negotiations with the West to achieve a vital easing of sanctions. This is a foreign policy matter.

But what if the Iranian people don’t see the results and feel betrayed? Then, the card – Rohani – that was supposed to save the regime ultimately will bring about its demise. Perhaps this is the only positive thing to take away from Rohani’s victory.