Since Hassan Rouhani became president in 2013, there’s been an incessant buzz about “moderates” in Iran. Is Iran on its way to becoming more moderate? Is Rouhani the agent of moderateness that Iranians can bet on? Is he really a moderate or only a “faux-moderate” who understands that being moderate can make you popular? Will the regime, which is much stronger than the presidency ever allow itself to become more moderate? Should the global community which would welcome a more moderate Iran support Rouhani?
The answers to these questions are “probably not”, “he might have been”, “defenitely not” and “perhaps not”. The reason for the evasiveness in answering the question is that there are two big factors which nobody can even get close to predicting: will the moderate-seeking Iranian population rise up to demand change and how will the regime react to such an uprising?
Rouhani, the “moderate”
The issue began with Rouhani himself who was immediately dubbed a moderate by the global community as well as by the people who voted for him. It’s easy to see why people would believe this following Rouhani’s promises to improve foreign relations with the world through “constructive engagement” which resulted in the signing of the JCPoA and the renewal of diplomatic, economic and military ties once the sanctions were removed. But once the JCPoA was inked, Iran’s supreme Leader Ali Khamenei stepped back onto center stage and began dictating foreign policy “red lines” based on his paranoia of the “Great Satan” (the USA) and “foreign infiltration” (any foreign, usually Western, influence on the economy or culture) which should not be crossed: the US was blamed for not removing non-nuclear sanctions (not stipulated in the JCPoA, American goods were banned from Iran, negotiations with the US were forbidden on every issue apart from the JCPoA…Tehran, at least in regards with the US, was back to its pre-Rouhani era.
But Rouhani wasn’t designated a moderate simply based on his promises on foreign policy: he also promised real change in the basic human and social rights of the Iranian people. He promised to free the leaders of the 2009 Green Movement, Mir Hossein and Mehdi Karroubi , from house arrest, to decrease the oppression of minorities, to decrease gender discrimination, to increase freedom of speech and allow for criticism of the government and the regime, to issue a Civil Rights Charter etc… Unfortunately for Iranians, the issue of human rights in Iran has deteriorated drastically as the regime leapt from one crackdown to another, infringing on the rights of free speech, artistic freedom, the freedom of individuals, the freedoms of minorities, women’s rights etc…Instead of an improvement in these areas, Iranians who believed in Rouhani’s promises found themselves disillusioned, oppressed and in jail.
The myth of Rouhani’s moderateness only increased during the parliamentary elections in which “reformers” managed to beat the “hardliners”, giving rise to hopes that not only was the government “moderate”, the parliament was now “moderate” as well. On closer inspection, the “reformist” party, the List of Hope, looked more like a loose coalition than a tight knit group who could take on the hardliners. Theoretically, Rouhani could command a majority in the Majlis but theories like these usually break apart once Khamenei puts his foot down.
Rouhani, the powerless
Is Rouhani a moderate? Is his star foreign minister, Javad Zarif, a moderate as well? It’s hard to say for sure. Rouhani and Zarif are hard to figure out because they are the products of two worlds: they both grew up within the regime which ingrained in them the Revolutionary ideals from 1979 but they both lived in the West and have acquired a much clearer understanding on how to communicate effectively with Westerners. Unlike Ahmadinejad, Rouhani isn’t all Islamic Revolution demagoguery, he is a pragmatic diplomat who knows that rants can get you only so far – adding sweet-talking diplomacy to the conversation can get you much much farther. Zarif, an expert diplomat, has no illusions about his commitment to the regime and its goals: Tehran, he claims in his book, has a “viewpoint that has the potential to be projected globally and change the international order”, a goal exemplified in the regime’s dedication to “Export the Revolution” (“The Islamic Republic supports the just struggle of the mustazafun (the oppressed) against the mustakbirun (the arrogant) in every corner of the globe”). “Exporting the Revolution” is just one of the Revolutionary Goals which as Zarif says, “distinguish us from other countries”. And yet, diplomacy is Zarif’s chosen weapon to achieve these goals: “the art of diplomacy is to maximise your benefits at minimum expense” and “the art of a diplomat is to conceal all turbulence behind his smile”. Exactly.
But does it really matter if Rouhani or Zarif are really “moderates at heart” or not? At the end of the day, not one bit. Whether Rouhani is really a deep-down moderate who wants to tone down the regime’s extremism or not, it is the regime, and specifically Khamenei, not Rouhani, who dictates Rouhani’s presidency. The regime, which is much more powerful and much more encompassing than Rouhani’s government, might tolerate the fact that people might think that Rouhani is a “moderate” but will not tolerate him acting as one. Why? Because 1) the regime, with Khamenei at its helm, remains glued to Revolutionary ideals and b) the regime is much more powerful than the president could ever be. Some of the regime’s elements such as the government and the parliament are voted on democratically but the most of the regime’s power originates from elements which are not chosen by the people, for the people, but are in fact chosen by the regime, for the regime. The Supreme Leader, the Guardian Council, the IRGC, the Basij etc… are all focused on one goal: preserving the nature of the regime as it was established in 1979 during the Islamic Revolution.
The real moderates in Iran
Yes, there are moderates in Iran. Moderates who would want part of the regime’s fundamentalism to disappear. Through the aid of global communications and social media, they can appreciate and understand the benefits of freedom. They definitely want to remain Iranian, they probably want to remain Muslim but they deplore the regime’s single-minded goal to maintain the status quo at all costs. They deplore the fact that they cannot voice their thoughts and feelings freely. They deplore the basic inequalities ingrained within the regime’s doctrine in regards to minorities, political opponents and women. They deplore the power of the unelected theocratic dictatorship over the democratically elected government, creating a mutant “democtatorship”. They deplore the regime’s incessant meddling in other countries’ affairs rather than focus on the welfare of the Iranian people. These are the moderates: apart from those already in jail, these moderates are stuck in a no-man’s land torn by the need to control their destinies as they see fit and the need to protect their freedoms and the freedoms of their loved ones. Some of them dare to cross the line and are immediately shut down or monitored to be shut down at a later date. They are Rouhani’s most willing partners for change and, unfortunately, they are the most disappointed in his inability nor the courage to wholeheartedly take on the regime.
So the regime is hardline, Rouhani’ might be more moderate than the regime but he is no match for a “Supreme Leader” and the real moderates are either forced to whispering conspiracies or to suffering violent crackdowns. Will the regime ever become more moderate? As long as Khamenei is alive, only a counter-revolution could achieve change and since the next Supreme Leader will be chosen by a hardline Assembly of Experts, his successor is bound to be a hardliner as well in order to maintain the status quo. One day, the Iranian moderates will finally rise – they might not succeed but they will rise.
To support or not to support?
The global community, in the meantime, is stuck in a veritable conundrum: Should it support Rouhani’s “moderateness” in order to give the Iranian moderates the moral and political support it might need or denounce his “faux-moderateness” for the scam it is, and in doing so, force the Iranian people to act out of desperation?
This question is further complicated by the fact that the Western support of Rouhani is exactly what’s fueling the hardline criticism against him…the minute he seems a bit too close to the West, he is immediately attacked at home for not being “Revolutionary” enough. Nobody really knows the answer to this question because nobody can really claim to know how to factor the regime’s reaction to any form of massive uprising and there have been enough cases, during and following the Arab Spring, that the West supported democracy in some countries like Libya and Egypt, only to watch democracy implode back and replacing dictators by fundamentalists and the nervous calm of suppression by outbursts of anarchy.