Iran’s revival of the moderates

Iran’s new president intends to reform his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s policies regarding domestic issues.

The streets of Iran are busy with traffic following Hassan Rouhani’s inauguration. They’re not full of cheering supporters like the night of the June 14 election. Reality has set it – Rouhani has a mountain to climb in terms of challenges and everyone knows it.

But he’s already taken steps – important ones. His speeches, both at the Supreme Leader’s endorsement ceremony on Saturday and Sunday’s swearing in at parliament, signal a new tone. Rouhani told parliament, “my government will make the most of its efforts… reduce threats and increase opportunities… people want better lives, dignity, respect and stability. Iran should find its right place in the family of nations.”

Gone are the fiery attacks on Iran’s enemies, the offensive foreign policy tactics of his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – which analysts, including Iran’s former UN representative Davoud Hermidas-Bavand, conclude got Iran absolutely nowhere.

Rouhani has reintroduced experience and diplomacy to the post of the presidency – not seen since Mohammad Khatami held the office. And if one understands Farsi, there’s even a change in language – Rouhani is polite, he speaks formally and clearly. He even greeted his foreign guests in different language, easily adapting between English, Farsi and Arabic.

But most Iranians will agree Ahmadinejad’s style of language was much more colloquial and sometimes outright insulting – for example, telling the parliament ‘to go to hell’ when he didn’t get his way or refusing to speak any other language than Farsi.

On Saturday Rouhani signalled his intention to reform Ahmadinejad’s policies regarding domestic issues, saying, “the government should reduce its economic and cultural intervention in people’s lives, we should improve civil and human rights, we should reform the government”.

He also spoke about the importance of women’s rights, that of religious minorities and the underprivileged. He also promised to fight corruption, “if we can fight this corruption and impunity…we’ll be able to use our national resources.. and bring about justice, this will build economic prosperity.”

Foreign dignitaries

For the first time, foreign dignitaries attended the swearing in, representing more than 40 countries and Javier Solana, the EU’s former foreign policy chief was a special guest. The parliament was packed – not just with foreigners, but Iran’s politicians and most influential, from the military and political halls of power.

Hashemi Rafsanjani sat on Rouhani’s left side during the ceremony, and also in the front row, Hassan Khomeini – the grandson of the late Ayatollah Khomeini. During Ahmadinejad’s term both men were shunned – Khomeini was even booed during the post 2009 election period as he spoke on the anniversary of his grandfather’s death.

Two people were missing however – former president Mohammad Khatami, the leader of Iran’s reformist movement, who is disliked by the country’s hardliners, and former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It’s customary for the outgoing president to sit besides the new one during the ceremony but not so this time. Ahmadinejad has already moved out of the presidential compound and gone back to his house in Narmak, in East Tehran.

So based on the last two days, it seems to be the revival of the moderates. Hassan Rouhani’s picks for his cabinet also tell that story – he’s nominated Mohammad Javad Zarif for foreign minister. He was at Rouhani’s side as he met dignitaries this morning, including those from Syria and Iraq. Educated at the University of Denver, Zarif has long-standing and strong Washington connections and has served as Iran’s representative to the UN. He’s also nominated Revolutionary Guardsman Hossein Dehghan as defence minister – replacing Ahmad Vahidi, who is wanted by Interpol for the 1994 bombing of the Jewish centre in Buenos Aires, Argentina. For vice president, he’s picked Es-haq Jahangiri, who was Khatami’s minister for industry and mines and worked for Hashemi Rafsanjani’s presidential campaign.

Many of the other nominees too hail from the eras of Khatami and Rafsanjani. Rouhani says he wants a government with appointments based on experience and talent – not connections. And if parliament approves these nominations, he’ll get his way. It’s widely rumoured that Mohammad Forouzandeh will get the post of Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council – making him Iran’s next nuclear negotiator. He’s been an member of the Expediency Council, headed Iran’s wealthiest charity organisation and was former defence minister.

Although Rouhani has signalled the intent to remove sanctions and fix Iran’s relationships with the rest of the world – he says the only way to do that are talks. And that works two ways. It’s not just the US watching what Rouhani does, Iran’s 7th president will be watching Washington, too.

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