The inauguration of Hassan Rouhani as President of the Islamic Republic of Iran is close at hand. Whether this event will bring large-scale change or not is not known. The country is dealing with the most serious international sanctions in its history. With the economic future of Iran up in the air, perhaps the reformist platform that Rouhani ran on will resonate with the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei, and his Assembly of Experts.
Depending on how you count it, this is the third major reformist event in the past 20 years in Iran. The first was the election of Mohammed Khatami as president in 1997; it is named the 2nd of Khordad Movement, after the date of Khatami’s first inauguration. 2009 had a bitterly disputed presidential election, in which many local and international groups thought the vote had been manipulated to give conservative incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a landslide victory over reformist (and close ally of Khatami) Mir-Hossein Mousavi. During the two years after the election, many prominent political parties were banned and leaders imprisoned or put under house arrest. After eight years of the very conservative Khamenei (in concert and sometimes against Ahmadinejad, known for his radical statements), many of the key reforms have been mostly or completely rolled back.
So what now? The Guardian looks at what small changes have been made in the interim between the election and the run up to the inauguration. Rouhani has not formed a government, and thus quite a bit of the article by nature is speculation. But some political prisoners have been freed or acquitted, and media and cultural restrictions seem to have relaxed a tad. But token changes will not change Iran’s international standing. As professor Ali Ansari remarks:
The conservatives seem to think that Rouhani’s election will change international perceptions overnight,” Ansari said. “But if they think that a smiling Rouhani will get sanctions lifted and everything will be hunky dory without giving something substantial to the west, they may be surprised.”
So here we stand, on the cusp of this third spring. To some extent, the first two have canceled themselves out, and Rouhani is building his own foundation. What power and influence he wields will not immediately be clear- since the President is not the supreme authority in the country, observers may have to fall back on the discipline of Kremlinology to detect trends in the government. Not only is there a Supreme Leader above the president, and an Assembly of Experts above the parliament, much of the government is split into the apparatus created by the Revolution of 1979, and the traditional bureaucracy. Put simply, the org chart of Iran is unusual. Reform will be resisted to different degrees, and whether Rouhani can develop a base of power is to be seen.
A couple months back, I went to a speech and Q&A by Hooshang Amirahadi, an ex-pat academic who ran essentially a protest campaign for president. While parts of what he had to say were stock and rather dull, he did point out why he had hope for Iran in the future. The main issues that exist between Iran and the West are not unique- human rights, nuclear technology, and terrorism are global problems more than Iranian problems. The United States, for instance, has developed formal diplomatic ties and even strategic alliances with nations with awful human rights records (Saudi Arabia being a prominent) example, and gives billions of dollars in military and humanitarian aid to three nations that are not signatories of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The US has also put aside serious terrorism concerns in Pakistan, and had not cut off ties despite links to attacks in India and a working relationship with groups in Afghanistan.
So Iran is not alone, and normalized relations are perhaps not as distant as it has seemed in the past several years. Rouhani can give both Iran and the world powers it negotiates with this kind of optimism, but the threat of the aging hard-line forces could dash such hopes. The Guardian piece does mention a symbolic overture to the United Kingdom by a reformist politician- congratulating Prince William and Kate Middleton on their new son. This was harshly condemned by forces that think of the UK as a tyrannical regime and a sworn enemy to the Islamic Republic. Iran will being going through a bipolar phase, where progress can only be made if the two camps learn to work with one another.
Amirahmadi by trade was a developmental economist and planner. Over the thousands of years that Persia has been home to advanced civilizations, it has had the benefit of plentiful resources and access to key trade routes. But looking at it in 2013, it is clear that Iran is not the economic world power it could be. The alienation from the West (and thus, most wealthy economies) is wasting resources and time that could be better spent. Whether Iran continues to struggle- culturally, economically, diplomatically- or moves beyond its problems is the question. This third spring will provide the answer soon enough.