On his election campaign, Rouhani promised to focus on Tehran’s foreign policy in an effort to bring Iran out of isolation. Within two years, culminating in the nuclear deal, he has radically changed what many Westerners thought about Iran.
Suddenly, Iran isn’t only a hotbed for fundamentalist mullahs, a sordid hideaway for abusing human rights and a center for promoting subversion and terrorism in the region: Iran has become a legitimate business partner and a leader for all anti-Americans. As far as these people are concerned, Rouhani delivered on his promise for change, big time.
As for the others, the changes that Rouhani delivered seem irrelevant since the status quo in Tehran remains intact under the iron-hard rule of Khamenei and his symbiotic relationship he has with the IRGC.
So what’s changed and what hasn’t changed in Iran?
What’s changed? Iran’s Brand Identity.
A brand represents the collective expectations, feelings and thoughts regarding an entity. As such, it is obviously related and dependent on the attributes and actions of the entity but not in a direct 100% way. In the same manner, packaging usually reflects messages that go beyond the description of the product within the package.
At the end of the day, most people buy brands (the container) and not products (content) since this speeds up decision making (no need to go into the fine print). A key point about brands is that they are subjective and not based on facts: one person likes Coke/Apple and another likes Pepsi/Samsung…both are right from their points of view.
Iran’s brand identity has changed drastically in the eyes of many people since Rouhani took office through three key changes:
- Tone and Style: Rouhani brought with him a smile, a diplomatic language and hopes for a better future which were unprecedented in previous administrations. His use of social media as part of his communication with people outside Iran only served to bring Iran closer to Westerners. The change in tone and style may have been enough for some who wanted to like Iran but were wary of the fiery rhetoric.
- “Untabooing” Issues: Rouhani “untabooed” and legitimized issues that had once been the essence of the regime such as rapprochement with the West, calls for easing of abuses of human rights, criticizing the IRGC, privatizing the economy etc…Regardless of whether he succeeded in changing these issues, the simple fact that he was willing to talk about it allowed another group of people to rethink about Iran in a more positive way.
- Redefining Issues: Rouhani managed to rebrand Iran by redefining issues of contention. A key example is his World Against Violence and Extremism (WAVE) proposal to the UN General Assembly two years ago which redefined Iran as a fighter against terrorism and violence as opposed to a country which supports terrorism. His redefinition of terrorism placed countries in the West, especially the US, as supporters of terrorism which convinced many anti-Westerners to view Iran in a much more positive light while allowing Iran to use terrorist organizations to fight for Iran in Yemen.
It’s important to note that all of these “rebranding tactics” targeted people outside of Iran in what Khamenei touted as the “soft war” over the public opinion of the world. Rouhani’s popularity within Iran was a given from the day he was elected and his efforts at rebranding Iran for an Iranian audience are negligible.
What’s not changed? Tehran’s Regime.
Iran’s government is based on three governing bodies: The government headed by Rouhani, the Majlis parliament representing Iranian constituents and the regime headed by Khamenei and supported by the IRGC. The first two are elected by the people while the last are chosen/hired by themselves. Unlike Western democracies, of the three bodies, the unelected regime, with Khamenei at its head, is by far the most influential in nearly every aspect of government.
Rouhani’s government is pushing for changes and the Majlis has opened up slightly to such possibilities but the regime’s goal is to maintain the status quo. Khamenei and his hardliner cronies don’t mind Rouhani rebranding Iran to the world, but they strongly oppose any form of change that weakens the revolutionary goals established in 1979. These goals include keeping all the Shariah laws within Iran, exporting the Islamic Revolution to any country or region where it might take hold and resisting the onslaught of capitalism and the freedoms that are key to older democracies in the West.
So while Rouhani rebrands Iran as a country that is open to change, the regime is not. As such, Tehran continues to abuse human rights, to support terrorist organizations, to meddle in its neighbours politics and wars and to do all it can in order to maintain its revolutionary identity. That’s why so much money is allocated to Iran’s war in Syria, supporting Hezbollah and Hamas’s war against Israel etc…instead of focusing on the benefits of the Iranian people. Rouhani can tweet all he wants against the persecution of women who are accused of “Bad Hijab” but at the end of the day, the regime continues to do so because “Good Hijab” is the status quo…and remember, it is now a “sin” to criticize the regime…
As such, Iran remains much the same as it was following the revolution in 1979.
The bottom line is this: Iran has changed on the outside but remains the same on the inside. Such “rebranding” changes without changes in the actual product are not uncommon but they are hard to maintain. Any change achieved under Rouhani can be “undone” by one word from Khamenei. In order for any change to remain permanent, it has to be done from within, by the Iranian people, and by changing the regime itself (or parts of it). As long as the regime maintains its revolutionary goals, no change can be substantial or permanent.