15th Oct 2019


As Iran changes, EU and US stand still

  • Tehran monument: Iranian people voted for change (Photo: Recovering Sick Soul)

When Iranians on Sunday (4 August) mark the inauguration of Hassan Rohani, a moderate cleric, as their new President, they will be doing so in the context of an international effort to depict the event as irrelevant at best and dangerous at worst.

The tone was set last month by Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, who, in a CBS interview, called Rohani "a wolf in sheep's clothing."

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His comments endorse the notion that nothing has changed in Iran compared to the times of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Rohani's hardline predecessor.

So, the line goes, the only reaction of the West should be to impose more sanctions and to escalate military threats.

Netanyahu is not alone in clinging to the old certainties: US neoconservatives, some European liberals, Salafists - a diverse set of people, who agree, perhaps, on nothing else - have said the same thing.

For its part, the neoconservative magazine, Weekly Standard, said the elections were: "Almost certainly fraudulent, even on a bigger scale than the disputed elections of 2009."

The US Congress approved a raft of new sanctions against Iran just 72 hours before the inauguration ceremony.

And there will be no Western VIPs at Sunday's events, despite Rohani's invitation of a number of EU leaders.

What is the Western logic on the situation?

Simple: Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, apparently decided that the only way to salvage the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic is to create the illusion that people are allowed to choose a moderate.

He therefore rigged the elections in order to install Rohani in the post.

For The Economist magazine and for US arch-neoconservative John Bolton, Rohani is not so much an opportunity as a trap: A smiling mullah who is acting as cover for the regime's accelerating efforts to get the nuclear bomb and to create further mayhem in Syria.

These interpretations refuse to acknowledge reality.

Rohani was elected not because of some devilishly smart plot by the Supreme Leader, but because Iranian people actually voted for change.

They have been doing so since 1997: Every election since then was a vote against the extreme wing of the clerical-political establishment which has dominated the country since the revolution of 1979.

To be sure, Iranian elections are not fully free and fair: All candidates are carefully vetted by the unelected Guardians Council.

But by consistently voting, within the range of available options, for the least ideological and the least revolutionary candidates, Iranians have shown that what they want is to normalise relations with the wider world, greater individual freedoms and economic prosperity.

What is significant in last month's vote is not just Rohani's win, but also the abject failure of the most ideological of the candidates - Saeed Jalili.

If Rohani fails to deliver, in four years Iranians are likely to vote for another pro-change candidate.

Meanwhile, even the defeated conservatives, who used to see themselves as flawless torch-bearers of the revolution, have started to do some soul-searching.

All this indicates, as Rouzbeh Parsi from the EU Institute for Strategic Studies in Paris has recently said, that Iran has moved into a post-revolutionary era.

Disillusionment with the legacy of the 1979 revolution does not mean that a new revolution is in the offing, however.

Recent history has made Iranians wary of violence: They had their last (bloody) revolution just 34 years ago. This was followed by a devastating war with Iraq.

Later on, during the reformist presidency of Mohammad Khatami (1997 to 2005), they learnt the hard way that pushing for change without consensus can elicit a violent response from the system.

The civil strife in Syria and now Egypt is another reason why Iranians prefer gradual, incremental, non-violent change.

This change is already taking place.

For example, shortly after being elected, Rohani said that a woman can be both unveiled and "decent."

It may sound trivial from a Western point of view, but it is a remarkable thing for a president-elect of the Islamic Republic to say publicly.

No less staggering was lack of condemnation from the more conservative forces.

Their silence on the veil statement indicates that such views are shared by many members of the elite and that ground is shifting even in such a sensitive area. It may take more time than Westerners and, indeed, many Iranians would like, but it does not make the change any less real.

It would be a grave mistake to dismiss the advent of Rohani as irrelevant or as some kind regime PR.

The Iranians have made a move. Now the world should respond with something more constructive than its usual mix of sanctions and threats.

Back in 2003, Iran, under Khatami helped the international community in Afghanistan and reached out to the US, only to be damned by the Bush administration as part of the "axis of evil."

Bush played a part in ushering Iran into a lost decade of hardline domination.

Let us not repeat the same mistake again.

Eldar Mamedov is a political adviser at the Socialists & Democrats Group in the European Parliament. The views expressed here are his own


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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