On August 3rd, Iran's notorious former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad officially left office, paving the way for Hassan Rouhani, considered by many as a ray of hope for the West, Israel included.
The 64-year old new leader – who obtained some 50.7% of the 36 million votes in June's elections – has already called for loosening control of the Internet, vowed to pursue liberal reforms, give greater individual rights, make Iranian politics more transparent, lessen restrictions on speech and security on college campuses.
Changes are also expected in Iran's foreign policy. During his first press conference, President Rouhani announced his intention to take steps to normalize relations with neighboring countries like Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states.
But his main challenges remain in the spheres of the country's flagging economy and sour relations with the West. In his presidential campaign and after, Rouhani stressed that he was deeply concerned about Iran's fiscal wounds and was determined to tone down the tactics of his predecessor. He also stressed that the US and Iran had to heal some "very old wounds to find solutions to past issues" and expressed his eagerness to appoint a new cabinet composed of Iranians holding Western degrees.
This means that there might be some hope to deal more seriously with the everlasting Iranian nuclear saga. The resumption of talks is expected in the autumn, and the Obama Administration has indicated its willingness to engage in fruitful dialogue.
NOT SO FAST
Yet, while there seems to be some potential for change for the better – in domestic policy as well as in relations with the outside world – actual results are not yet assured. Prof. David Menashri, the founding director of the Alliance Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University and the President of College of Law and Business in Ramat Gan, said Rouhani was elected first and foremost to save the Islamic Revolution.
"Rouhani is the golden child of the revolution and has always been a part of its apparatus. It's a mistake to think that he is either a moderate or reformist,” Menashri explained to Israel Today. “In Iranian politics he may be considered a centrist. He has been on the side of the regime, filling multiple governmental posts. He served as the head of the National Security Council (NSC) for 16 years and is currently the representative of the Supreme Leader at the NSC.”
Furthermore, when the Islamic revolution broke out in 1979, Rouhani was about to pursue his Master’s degree. Instead, he flew to Paris to join the then-Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini.
Dr. Rajab Safarov, director of the Russian Center for Modern Iranian Research (a pro-Iranian think-tank based in Moscow) and one of the leading experts in the field, agreed:
“Rouhani is characterized as a reliable and trustworthy person, who wants to repair Iran's economy, change the world's attitude to his country and establish healthy relations with the West. He is shrewd, boasts a sharp intellect and rich life experience and doesn't waste words. He is knowledgeable and understands the problems of the society as well as burning regional and global issues. But he is not a liberal in the Western sense of the word and will not support pro-American policies. He is part and parcel of the Islamic clergy and will remain loyal to the principles of the Iranian revolution.”
IS THERE A SILVER LINING?
If that's the case, how likely is it that the West (Israel included) can reach any agreement with Tehran? Safarov said much depended on the international leaders.
“Rouhani wants to have ties with the West and dreams of turning Iran into a normal member of the global society,” claimed the well-connected Iranian expert. “He is the man of dialogue, who has certain sympathy for the West and who can definitely make concessions.”
According to Safarov, the West was unable to accept Ahmadinejad's harsh tone, prickly comments against the US and Israel, as well as his unwillingness to cooperate with the West on the issue of Iran's nuclear program. That's why it was virtually impossible for the international leaders to reach any agreement with the former president.
Iran's new leader gives Washington the ladder it needs to descend from the high tree it has climbed, Safarov charged. “The US got tired from confronting Iran. Many of its European allies came to realize that they could not sustain their economies without Iranian energy supplies. This made them go against Washington's ban to trade with the Islamic Republic or buy the country's oil.”
DID THE SANCTIONS WORK?
But Menashri said Iran was nailed to the wall by international sanctions, and Rouhani's election was the only solution to the country's crisis. “Rouhani was not elected because of his charisma or his powerful personality, rather because of the country's reaction to the escalating circumstances,” said the Israeli. “Unemployment is skyrocketing, whereas inflation has already reached 40 percent (and counting). To improve the economic situation, the [new] president will have to improve ties with the West.”
The expert also stressed that the new situation provided Iran with a ladder to descend from its own tree. “In this sense, the election of Rouhani carries the potential for change. What's needed right now is hard work that would enable to bridge the existing gaps.”
The main question is whether Rouhani will have enough time or power to pull it through, especially given the fact that any Iranian president has to answer to the Supreme Leader. Nevertheless, the experts remain optimistic.
Safarov argued the Ayatollah was actually supporting the renewal of ties with the West, but stressed that Iran would not accept any humiliation. “Iran perceives itself as a regional superpower and will not tolerate insults from the West regardless the damage,” he explained. “However, the president and the Supreme Leader will be ready to negotiate with the US directly if certain conditions are met.”
Menashri voiced his stance: “Rouhani is supported by leading Iranian politicians and maintains close ties with the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, so he might be able to influence them. Besides, people behave differently before assuming power and after. Now that Rouhani is going to govern 75 million people, he might feel the urge to change things on the ground, which means whispering in Ayatollah's ear that more meaningful reforms are crucial for the salvation of the revolution.”
Hawks in Washington have already warned about the perils of getting too cozy too quickly with Rouhani. In his article “Talk to Iran's New President. Warily,” Denis Ross, a former assistant to President Obama for the Middle East, depicted Rouhani as a clever diplomatic tactician, who (together with the Ayatollah) was just staging a show.
Having little or no intention of changing the tone of Iranian politics or making any concessions on the burning atomic issue, the leader might trick the US and its allies into believing that change was just around the corner. While international leaders would loosen their biting sanctions, Tehran would win time to develop a bomb.
But Menashri believed Ross’ approach was the right one: “Rouhani is a smiley face. He spares his words when it comes to Israel and the US, something that can fool world leaders into making them drop their hard tactics. But the truth is that the election of Rouhani is the direct result of Western pressure. So the only way to force Iran to make a U-turn in its atomic ambitions is through continuous pressure combined with dialogue.”
IRAN AS FUTURE PARTNER?
Safarov was convinced that reaching an agreement with Iran was ultimately in the West's interests, given the worsening stability in the region.
“Washington's closest allies are now facing multiple problems. The Arab Spring is still raging in Egypt and is threatening to hit Turkey. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are losing their leading positions; whereas Israel is more concerned with its security challenges,” he asserted. “To maintain its positions in the region, the US needs a strong partner and this could be Iran. The country has huge potential, it is independent and boasts powerful partners like Russia and China.”
Safarov believes that the re-establishment of US-Iran ties would have a positive effect on world politics and would improve global security. It would help to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Shiite-Sunni confrontation between Iran and other Muslim states led by Saudi Arabia.
What are the chances that the two countries would scrap their past resentments and opt for a fresh new start? Menashri said they were higher than before: “Rouhani is likely to bring a change because his politics are going to differ from those of Ahmadinejad's. Iranians realized that 35 years of screaming 'death to America' didn't bring any tangible results. Iranians are fighting for bread and political freedom, and the new leader has the power and the will to change the situation.”
But Safarov insisted true cooperation and reconciliation would only be possible if America and the West came to terms with certain realities. The US “has to give up on its desire to change the Iranian governmental system,” he concluded, stating that furthermore, “Before any cooperation between the two takes place, Washington has to acknowledge the Iranian right to nuclear energy. If the West continues to back its stubborn policy of force and threats, the situation will deteriorate further. Washington has to seize the moment because Iran is almost ripe for direct talks.”
Is it worth it? Will the situation really get better, or is this just another ruse? Time will tell.