The regime in Tehran acts as a massive curtain which, up until a few months ago, effectively suppressed the contact between modern Western values and antiquated Islamic Revolutionary ideals. For years, under sanctions, this curtain was tightly shut. The signing of the nuclear deal, the JCPoA, opened this curtain slightly but the verdict in Iran, as in the West, over whether this is a positive development or not, is still not unanimous.
Within Iran, two diametrically opposed camps are being established: one camp, led by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, is pressing hard to keep the curtain closed while the other camp, led by president Hassan Rouhani, is working at opening the curtain a bit further. Both camps are at odds because Khamenei is focused on national pride while Rouhani is focused on personal dignity.
Outside Iran, there are also two opposing camps: one camp led by liberals in the EU/US and by Russia is welcoming the opening of the curtain while the other camp, led by conservatives in the EU/US and by the Gulf States, would rather wait for Tehran’s regime to change before it opens the curtain further. Both camps are at odds because one camp is betting on normalization while the other is focusing on deterrence.
All camps are fueled by their beliefs on whether opening the curtain is an opportunity or a danger and the simple answer is that nobody really knows and everyone is looking closely on developments in order to find out.
Inside Iran: National Pride vs. Personal Dignity
Khamenei’s perspective is a macro one which focuses on national pride: For Khamenei, the welfare of the Iranian nation can be attributed only to the ability of the regime to maintain its revolutionary values and its national pride. It is this national pride which presses him on to promote a “resistance economy” and to fend off “foreign interference”. According to him, there is a “comprehensive soft war between the Islamic Republic of Iran on one side and America and Zionists and their followers on the other side“. The aim of this “soft war” on Iran, according to Khamenei, is to dissolve the regime’s Islamist and revolutionary laws and to turn Iranians into “Westerners”.
Rouhani’s perspective is a micro one which focuses on personal dignity: For Rouhani, the welfare of the Iranian citizen is dependent on the ability of the Iranian people to enjoy the freedom to live modern Islamic lives as global citizens. His point of view is best summed up in his criticism of the regime’s use of undercover “morality police” in charge of ensuring that women dress modestly, that people don’t listen to loud music, that Iranians don’t buy in to Western culture etc…: “Our first duty is to respect people’s dignity and personality. God has bestowed dignity to all human beings and this dignity precedes religion“.
Behind Khamenei and Rouhani are their respective fans and supporters but in between them are the millions of Iranians who are stuck in limbo, unsure of what is really best for them. Since Khamenei was not voted into office by the people, and since opposition to the regime is deemed a sin punishable by imprisonment and death, it is hard to estimate just how many Iranians really support Khamenei. It is much easier to identify the scale of Rouhani’s core supporters since they are the ones who voted him into office and who voted for reformists and moderates in the parliamentary elections.
Outside Iran: Normalization vs. Deterrence
The signing of the JCPoA by the P5+1 was a clear call for normalization with Iran in the future. Of course, the motives for normalization differ from country to country and can be summed up by four aspirations: money, human rights, power and peace. The lifting of sanctions includes a promise for making a lot of money whether it is to export products and services to Iranians (Khamenei is against this) or whether it is by investing in manufacturing and development within Iran. For now, the EU and some of Iran’s neighbors, including Russia, China, India, Pakistan etc…are betting on normalization. Many Western countries also view the prospect of normalization as a means of empowering Iranian citizens to enjoy better human rights. On the other hand, some countries such as Russia and China are more interested in the political and military power that an alliance with Iran can bring. Finally, most of the countries in the world are counting on normalization as a means to defuse the threats of war which have exemplified Tehran’s attitudes to its neighbors for the past four decades.
On the other hand, some countries, specifically the US, the Arab states which are fearful of Tehran’s quest to export its revolution and Israel, whose existence is threatened by Tehran, are more interested in deterrence. For them, normalization is seen as a mirage set up by Tehran to anesthetize the world while it develops a nuclear arsenal. This push for deterrence is based on a disbelief in the possibility of normalization by the regime, whether the normalization is pressed on from within or from without. On the other hand, the factions pushing for normalization are accusing the factions pushing for deterrence for supporting the Khamenei’s regime instead of Rouhani’s government.
The Times, They Are A’Changing
No one can remain idle in regards to Iran nor to the developments there in the past few years. Whether we like it or not, Iran is going to change in the future and it is hard to guesstimate who this change will benefit. Behind the curtain, Iranians society is fragmented between the millions of Iranians, mostly the older, poorer and more religious Iranians living outside of Tehran, who still believe in the ideals of the Islamic revolution and the millions of Iranians, mostly the younger, richer and more secular living in Tehran, who want to become “Westerners”.
Behind the Iranian curtain, the religious regime continues to stifle human rights while the secular rich party on with alcohol, dancing, drugs, homosexuality etc…Both live side by side, hidden behind veils of secrecy but they are not openly balancing each other out as they do in Western societies. Instead, both sides remain mostly hidden in the shadows of the curtain.
But change is on its way: whether it is the changes that Rouhani promised or whether it is a backlash to Rouhani’s changes, whether the curtain will fall or will it be tightly reshut. The answer to the direction of this change will be found in the aftermath of the presidential election in June 2017. If Rouhani wins and is allowed by the regime to stay on, the curtain will open a bit more. But if Rouhani loses or if the regime decides to take him down undemocratically, the curtains will be shut tight once again.