Will Rouhani bring a tectonic shift to Iran’s political landscape?

Nile
Bowie discusses the challenges and controversies of recent Iranian political
developments with award-winning journalist Kourosh Ziabari:



NB: Hassan Rouhani, a reform-minded
moderate cleric and former nuclear negotiator under President Khatami, will be
Iran’s new president. There is talk in Washington of direct US-Iran talks in
light of Rouhani coming to power. Rouhani campaigned on a platform of trying to
“normalize” relations with the West, and he even made statements like, “It is
good to have centrifuges running, provided people’s lives and livelihoods are
also running.” Given Rouhani’s stance, did the Iranian public treat these
elections as a public referendum on the nuclear issue? And how did Supreme
Leader Ayatollah Khamenei interpret the results?

KZ: To be honest with you, I should
confess that the June 14 presidential elections in Iran was firstly an
examination for the current of extremist rightists who believed that the country’s
affairs could be managed through maintaining hostility and animosity with the
Western world, prolonging the nuclear controversy and relying on skimpy
business and trade with Russia and China. The candidate of this stream, Mr.
Saeed Jalili, simply attracted an insignificant minority of the votes, 11.37%.
I’m not saying that succumbing to the irrational demands of the world powers is
a solution to Iran’s problems, but the political parties and streams supporting
Mr. Jalili, who was supposedly Dr. Rouhani’s main contender, but came third in
the final vote, irresistibly believed that the nuclear standoff with the West
was not something significant and crucial for the future of the country. This
is while Dr. Rouhani and his massive supporters had astutely come to the
conclusion that the nuclear issue was the country’s main concern and the
Achilles heel that was paralyzing the country’s economy, political structure
and international stature.
 

 As a result, Dr. Rouhani based his
campaign slogans on his foreign policy priorities which included the
normalization of relations with the West in general, and the United States in
particular, interaction with the outside world, improving Iran’s ties with its
neighboring countries and finally bringing the controversy surrounding Iran’s
nuclear program to an end. 
As you precisely mentioned, the
recent elections in Iran have been a public referendum on the nuclear issue.
Even the most ordinary Iranian citizen had recognized that the staggering
inflation, unusual supply of money in the society, the skyrocketing increase in
the price of consumer goods, housing and automobiles, the unprecedented
devaluation of Iran’s currency, Rial, and the annoying unemployment of the
educated youth all stemmed from mismanagement in Iran’s nuclear program.
According to some critics of President Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy, if nuclear
energy is our inalienable right, which unquestionably is, then cheap and
inexpensive foodstuff, medicine and medical services, safe and secure
transportation, a renewed aviation fleet, high-speed internet connection,
employment, housing, free education and proper income are our inalienable
rights, as well.
 As for the Supreme Leader, he
doesn’t seem to be dissatisfied with the results, but of course his favorite
president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is leaving the office, and after all, Dr.
Hassan Rouhani is a reformist, and Ayatollah Khamenei has been traditionally
unfriendly with the reform-minded politicians, unlike the late founder of
Islamic Revolution Imam Khomeini.

NB: When Rouhani was Iran’s nuclear
negotiator, he played a key role in reaching an agreement with France, Britain
and Germany that resulted in Iran suspending its uranium enrichment program.
Would Rouhani concede to freezing the country’s civilian nuclear program to
ease Western pressure, despite Iran being an abiding signatory to the Nuclear
non-Proliferation Treaty? What could the response be from the Supreme Leader if
Rouhani accepts US measures that are deemed to be wholly unfavorable to Iran?

KZ: Well, as you may have noted,
President Rouhani implied during his first press conference on June 17 that the
age of suspending uranium enrichment has passed. He says this because Rouhani
is not alone in making decisions about Iran’s nuclear program. We have the
parliament’s (Majlis) influential Foreign Policy and National Security
Committee which is consisted of a number of conservative lawmakers mostly
opposed to the reformist movements in Iran who boldly and resolutely resist the
decisions of the president if they wish, the state TV which is supervised by
the representative of the Supreme Leader and has a great impact on the course
of political developments in the country, and above all, the Supreme Leader
himself, who has the final say on the most of foreign policy issues,
particularly the nuclear issue and the possible direct negotiations with the
United States.
 

 So, suspending the enrichment of
uranium which is seen as an unforgivable crime in Iran, cannot be put on
agenda. However, everything depends on the craftsmanship of President Rouhani
who has demonstrated that as a diplomat, he is able to handle the affairs in
such a way that all the disputes can be settled in a short period of time. He
may give certain concession to the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, UK and
the U.S.) which neither the Supreme Leader nor the parliament hardliners can
criticize or deny. For example, he may accept a temporary suspension of uranium
enrichment in return for the freezing of the banking and gold sanctions. As the
next step, he may put forward the offer that Iran can ship a certain amount of
its low-enriched uranium (LED) to France or Russia and receive fuel rods for
using in Tehran Research Reactor.
 

This step can be reciprocated by
the lifting of EU’s oil embargo against Iran. Finally, Iran can promise to
suspend its 20% enrichment of uranium, and continue enriching uranium to the
extent of 3.5%, as it was doing before 2003. This can be a promising and
serious sign that Iran is determined to resolve the nuclear standoff. And as a
reward, the United States and European Union can lift all the sanctions and
move toward the full normalization of relations with Iran and settle the
remaining disputes on such cases as human rights, Israeli-Palestinian conflict
and the U.S. support for the anti-Iran terrorist cult MKO. In this path, both
parties should learn to forget about the past grievances and only contemplate
on the future. Such an approach would guarantee Iran’s rights under the
Non-Proliferation Treaty to have a peaceful nuclear program, and will alleviate
the concerns of the international community regarding the peaceful nature of
Iran’s nuclear activities.

NB: In the run up to the recent
elections, Washington cast doubt over the legitimacy of the electoral process
in Iran, while many mainstream analysts implied that these elections would
somehow be controlled by the Supreme Leader, and that his candidate would
surely be the winner. The opposite turned out to be true, with the only
reformist being elected with a strong majority. Do you think these elections
were portrayed fairly by Western media?

KZ: The electoral process in Iran
had not been frequently challenged and questioned by the Western powers prior
to the 2009 presidential election which was marred with the allegations of
vote-rigging. It was surely an irretrievable damage to Iran’s public image in
the world; however, we should scientifically investigate and figure out whether
the reelection of President Ahmadinejad was fraudulent or not. At any rate,
this was the only election in the Islamic Republic’s history which was labeled
with vote-rigging, and I cannot say for sure if the allegations leveled by the
West are true. Of course we had several parliamentary and presidential
elections in which the reformists came to power; so it’s not the case that
those who are elected are necessarily the hand-picked choices of the Supreme
Leader.
 

At least in the 2013 election, it
was demonstrated that those who undermine Iran’s electoral process have been
thinking wrongfully. A reformist president was elected who certainly was not
the favorite choice of the Supreme Leader. The portrayal of Iran’s presidential
elections by the Western mainstream media resembles their general depiction of
the Iranian society, their attitude toward the cultural, social and political
developments in Iran and their viewpoint toward the Iranian lifestyle. They
cannot detach themselves from the cliches which they have been parroting about
Iran. This lopsided, impartial and biased portrayal of Iran has caused millions
of American and European citizens to think of Iran as a retarded, uncivilized,
deserted and miserable country with people who are not familiar with the
representations of the modern civilization. Of course they don’t allow their
audience to know that Iran is a country which had once stood atop the peaks of
human civilization, science, literature and “decent” way of living…

NB: What does Rouhani’s victory say
about the changing political sentiments in Iran after two terms of Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad? Where is Iran today after Ahmadinejad more generally – in terms of
economic and social conditions? How do you think Iranians will remember Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad?

KZ: Well, it’s wrong to evaluate the
performance of politicians in black and white. Like every other president,
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has had remarkable contributions to his society, and of
course pitfalls and shortcomings which deteriorated the lives of the Iranians
across the country. However, I think for the majority of Iranians, especially
those who live in the urban areas, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s tenure will be
remembered as a period of economic hardships, political tensions and social
restrictions as manifested in the closure of newspapers, cultural associations
like the House of Cinema and the Association of Iranian Journalists.
 

Ahmadinejad, as the second
non-cleric president of Iran’s history, could have left a memorable legacy for
the Iranian people, but by selecting incompetent managers, disallowing the
journalists and experts to critique and evaluate his performance, taking up an
aggressive and confrontational foreign policy and attending to the issues which
were not relevant to him, tarnished his own reputation. But please don’t forget
that once he was in power, I always supported him and his administration
against the spates of attacks being unleashed on him by the Western media, but
now that he is leaving office, it’s time to talk about the tough 8 years we had
with him more transparently. Let’s bear this in mind, that criticizing
Ahmadinejad is not equivalent to being opposed to the Iranian government or the
Islamic system. We all stand by our country and defend it against the
ill-wished, ill-mannered enemies, but now, we want a peaceful and constructive
interaction with the world instead of enmity and hostility.

NB: Iran’s model of religious
democracy is basically unprecedented – it aims to blend modern participatory
electoral politics together with a system of governance based upon Islamic
ethics, administered by religious officials. Despite hardships and difficulties
imposed by Western sanctions since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, it is a
political system that continues to claim massive public support. What are
Iran’s biggest achievements? Have attitudes both internationally and
domestically changed towards Iran after the recent elections in contrast to
what happened in 2009?

KZ: Unquestionably, the Islamic
Revolution of 1979 was a turning point in the course of Iran’s contemporary
history. It brought to an end frequent years of Iranian government’s
subservience and obedient to the United States. The revolution emerged out of
several years of civil protests against the tyrannical government of Mohammad
Reza Shah. The Pahlavi dynasty had blatantly denied the Iranian citizens their
basic political, social and economic rights. The whole country was kept in a
constant state of underdevelopment and backwardness, the equal distribution of
wealth was not on the government’s agenda and the economic situation of the
country was really deplorable. Although the foreign diplomacy of Iran was
vivacious thanks to the strong relationships the court had with the White
House, people were usually dissatisfied with their living conditions. The
government was unable to meet the people’s demands and provide them with the
facilities they needed for a moderate life.
 

Following the revolution, the
number of universities, schools, hospitals, roads, sports stadiums, housing
units, department stores, cinemas, theaters, public libraries, factories, power
plants and other infrastructures needed for the development of the country
increased significantly and a new movement began for the renovation of the country’s
infrastructures. You may not believe, but prior to the 1979 revolution, people
in tens of major cities and thousands of villages in Iran didn’t have access to
electricity, drinking water, fossil fuels and safe roads. It was the revolution
that swayed the government officials to think of new solutions for improving
the people’s livelihoods and enhancing the infrastructures.
 

Imam Khomeini, the late founder of
Islamic Revolution, was a reform-minded spiritual leader, and this is why
certain extremist insiders at the top of the Iran’s political echelon are
afraid of his thoughts and his approach toward the way of managing the
country’s affairs. You see that two of the close allies of Imam Khomeini,
namely Mirhossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi were unexpectedly put under house
arrest after they protested the results of the 2009 presidential elections.
Their only crime was that they run against the incumbent President Ahmadinejd,
otherwise, I don’t see any reason for their unwarranted imprisonment. Albeit it
should be added that the United States and its European allies also irreparably
betrayed the reform movement by explicitly supporting Mousavi and Karroubi in
the 2009 election and calling them opposition leaders, and this gave the
hardliners in Iran an excuse to stigmatize them and deprive them of their
political rights and somehow exclude them from the political scene.
 

So, back to business, I think Imam
Khomeini founded a new political system which was supposed to respond to the
people’s material and worldly needs while helping them realize religious and
moral sublimity and remaining committed to the principles of morality and
ethics. This system of government revived the lost and forgotten human values
which the secular world had consigned to oblivion and even sometimes opposed.
This is the main reason for the Western powers’ opposition to the Islamic
Republic. Since the Islamic Revolution, Iran began championing the cause of the
oppressed Muslim nations, especially the people of Palestine who had been
subject to Israeli occupation for decades. The Islamic Republic was predicated
on resisting hypocrisy and double standards; something pervasive and ubiquitous
in the Western powers’ behavior. These standards cannot be tolerated and even
condoned by the Western powers whose major policies are always blended with
portions of hypocrisy and duplicity. This is why the Islamic Republic has so
many adversaries in the world, even among the Islamic states of the Middle
East.
 Of course the recent election has
changed the international and domestic attitudes toward Iran. The new
government will surely receive a more popular support from the Iranian people,
and it will help the government in the nuclear negotiations to have the upper
hand. The election has also signaled Iranian people’s craving for moderation
and rationality, instead of extremism and radicalism.

NB: Iran has previously extended its
hand in efforts to cooperate with the US in specific areas, and Washington
failed to honor these efforts. Is there good reason to doubt the sincerity of
the US in talks with Iran? Would it give up the ‘regime change’ policy it has
maintained from the start of the revolution? 

KZ: Undisputably, the Iranian
government is right if it’s dubious toward the United States and its presumed
efforts to reach out to Iran. Iran has always expressed willingness to hold
talks with the United States on equal footings and based on mutual respect. But
the point is that whenever some rational elements in the power structure of the
two countries decided to facilitate the talks, the United States killed the
chances of a fruitful and beneficial negotiation by imposing sanctions. Look at
the recent sanctions bill which the House of Representatives has overwhelmingly
passed, by a vote of 400 to 20. The new Iranian president, as I’m answering to
your questions, has not sworn in yet. But the U.S. lawmakers have imposed a new
round of sanctions on Iran. What’s the logic and rationale behind this new
round of sanctions? How do the U.S. Congressmen justify the new oil embargo
while the new Iranian president hasn’t ever had the chance to sit on his chair
in the presidential palace and issue the first presidential decree, which is
the appointment of his ministers? So you see that radicalism and fanaticism
have always harmed Iran and the United States. Of course the new round of
sanctions, if approved by the Senate and signed into law by the president, will
deliver a lethal blow to President Rouhani’s call for moderation and
interaction with the West.
 

It is for sure that certain U.S.
administrations, especially the Reagan and Carter administrations, and the
George W. Bush’s administration, had intentions for implementing the policy of
regime change in Iran. Supporting, financing and aiding the terrorist cult
Mujahedin-e-Khalq Organization (MKO) which has killed some 40,000 Iranians
since the 1979 revolution is one of the signs indicating that the U.S.
government, at certain junctures of time, pursued a policy of regime change in
Iran. But there are indications that President Obama has changed this policy
and that Washington has come to its senses and realized that the age of
revolutions in Iran is over.

NB: Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu
recently threatened Iran with military action over accusations that Tehran is
building nuclear weapons, and called Rouhani a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has heavily pushed a bill seeking
to impose a de facto ban on Iran’s oil exports, a cut off of any trade
involving the euro, and moves to target Tehran’s shipping and automobile
sectors. It would also curtail Washington’s ability to waive sanctions on third
countries and their companies that continue to do business with Iran. Would the
US take a chance to thaw relations with Iran under Rouhani in spite of Zionist
pressure and significant lobbying?

KZ: Well, if AIPAC successfully
convinces the U.S. Congress and government to ratify this bill, I can say for
sure that there will never ever be a single speck of chance for a peaceful
solution to the controversy over Iran’s nuclear program. The Zionists will
extinguish all the possible ways of reconciliation between Iran and the United
States to the detriment of Washington. It’s the United States which will lose a
probable ally, and it is  Europe which will be deprived of a lucrative
market for free trade and business. By the way; let me clarify something. At
this juncture, the Iranian people feel sympathetically toward the American
people and their culture and civilization. But by pursuing the Zionist agenda,
the Americans will even lose the minimal support they enjoy here in Iran.

NB: Aside from the nuclear and
political issues, what are the biggest issues facing the Iranian nation today?
What can Rouhani do to create meaningful solutions in line with popular
reforms? If his moves are not well received by the Supreme Leader, is it
possible that he might stymie any significant shifts toward reform?

KZ: There are several challenges
ahead of President Rouhani and his team. First of all, he should sweep away the
legacy of extremism that has been left in Iran’s public sphere. He should bring
back morality to the Iranian society. In these 8 years, the conservative media
have been relentlessly attacking the reformists and their supporters, calling
them seditious, mobsters and criminal. This approach should change and the
conservative media should learn that there’s a limit to the toleration of their
destructive approach. I have always criticized these media for repeatedly
insulting the reformist leaders and millions of people supporting them, saying
that such media talk of their political opponents as if they are criminal
Zionists massacring the defenseless people of Palestine in the Occupied
Territories and the Gaza Strip!
 

Accordingly, we need to address the
concerns of the cultural activists, authors, journalists, musicians,
movie-makers and other artists who need greater freedoms, a better environment
for creating rich and exalted artworks and participating in political
activities without any restrictions. 
Secondly, the concern Rouhani and
his cabinet should address is the nation’s economic woes. The country is
currently facing an astounding hyperinflation, unprecedented cut in the export
of oil and petrochemical products, citizens’ decreased purchasing power, etc.
 And finally, we have the foreign
policy challenges. We need to settle our unnecessary disputes with not only the
Western powers, but the Arab world, our neighbors and finally the United
States. We need to find a viable solution for the nuclear controversy, which
will surely solve many of the nations’ problems.

NB: Media reports claim that Iran’s
former ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammad Javad Zarif, is Rouhani’s
pick as foreign minister. Zarif is said to be highly respected by those in the
United States, and even Vice President Joe Biden told the Washington Post in
2007 that Zarif could “play an important role in helping to resolve our
significant differences with Iran peacefully.” What kind of changes do you
see coming in Iran’s foreign policy? Russian President Vladimir Putin is set to
visit Tehran as the first foreign guest of Rouhani. How will Iran’s
relationship with Russia, and also China, grow?

KZ: Of course the appointment of Dr.
Zarif as Iran’s new foreign minister marks a significant change in Iran’s
foreign policy. Zarif is a reform-minded, moderate diplomat, like Rouhani
himself, and he can certainly make effective contributions to a negotiated
solution for Iran’s nuclear deadlock. But please note that the change in Iran’s
foreign policy has already started, even before President Rouhani takes office.
Officials from more than 40 countries are slated to attend his inauguration
ceremony. Isn’t this a major breakthrough for him, while he hasn’t yet sworn in
as the president? So, it sounds like the world is embracing Dr. Rouhani as a
new president who has come to power with a slogan of moderation and
constructive interaction with the world.
 Of course the change which I expect
is that we will not be hearing adventurous statements by the foreign ministry
officials, we will not find our president being left with an empty hall while
addressing the UN General Assembly, we will not find our president being booed
in the Columbia University and we will not find our president being called a
hawk by those who are the real hawks of our world today. Iran will be hosting
dignitaries from all around the world, especially given that it has assumed the
presidency of the Non-Aligned Movement, but I’m sure that the whole world,
including the European nations, will come to reconcile their differences with
us.

Kourosh Ziabari is an award-winning Iranian journalist, writer and media correspondent writing for newspapers and journals across the world. For more on work, visit his website: http://kouroshziabari.com/

Nile Bowie is a Malaysia-based political analyst and a columnist with Russia Today. He also contributes to PressTV, Global Research, and CounterPunch. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.