Iran: Unclenching the fist

A deal with the West on nuclear enrichment has given hope to many Iranians struggling under sanctions.

Hassan Rouhani's electoral victory brought hope to many Iranians who were reeling from a weak economy [Reuters]
Hassan Rouhani's electoral victory brought hope to many Iranians who were reeling from a weak economy [Reuters]

It’s said that the beginning and the end are not so important; what happens in the middle matters most. That sums up Iran, 2013. A lot has changed since January – but nothing has at the same time. Emad Abshenas, political analyst, journalist and managing director of two Iranian news publications, sums it up: “All in all, it was a bad year, but Iranians now have hope for a better future. At the beginning it started bad, and it ended great.”

The year began with Iran’s economy on its downward spiral – the Iranian rial was trading at about 3,500 to one US dollar, fluctuating up and down week to week. It had already lost, at the worst point, 70 percent of its value.

Israel and the United States upped their threats to bomb Iran, “all options are on the table” as President Barack Obama put it.

Western powers did not trust Iran’s assurances that its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes only.

Because of this, the US imposed more sanctions to further cripple Iran’s economy; “the toughest in history”, the Obama administration boasted.

In the atmosphere of threats and doom and gloom, Iran’s president finished his second term. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad left the post with Iran’s international reputation in tatters. But he had bestowed one gift – Iran’s nuclear programme was more efficient and superior than at any other time in its history.

And all this is why retirees like Ahmed went to vote in June. The chemistry teacher had reached his 30 years of service and therefore mandatory retirement the year before. Unable to make ends meet on his pension, he was forced to drive a taxi.

“What else was I supposed to do? I got an education, worked, but still I couldn’t live at an acceptable standard. So here I am,” he said, waving one hand around his taxi, eyes fixed on the tunnel ahead.

Men like him had and have little time for international politics, in so far as it does not impact their own lives. Their focus is inwards. So, in August, Hassan Rouhani gained Ahmad’s vote and that of 72 percent of the voting population – and thus inherited Ahmadinejad’s legacy.

‘Political epic’

Iranians from all walks of life have said that Rouhani’s triumph at the ballot box in June was, for them, the single greatest moment of the year – if not the past eight years. This year was one of triumph for Iran’s moderates, who had been pushed out and marginalised for almost a decade. It was a huge election – a “political epic” – in the words of Iran’s Supreme Leader.

Rouhani designed a cabinet of educated, diplomatic pragmatists. At the head is Iran’s ever smiling Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif. He led the detente in Geneva and secured November’s preliminary nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 powers. He held the highest level face to face meeting with a US politician in almost 35 years – meeting US Secretary of State John Kerry in Geneva. It paved the way for what, at the beginning of the year, was unthinkable – a phone call between the Iranian and US presidents. Analysts described it as historical.

What followed the events in Geneva, and that phone call, could be the start of Iran’s version of “coming in from the cold”. Western oil and automotive firms, like Total, Shell and Peugeot, which left the Iranian market because of sanctions, are scrambling to reclaim their places. The prospect that Iran could participate in the Syria solution seems a little more likely.

But high expectations could inevitably lead to disappointment.

Iran’s people want their country recognised as a stable, influential, regional power – with the right to chart an independent course. That goal became much closer to a reality in 2013.

Follow Soraya Lennie on Twitter: @sorayalennie

Source: Al Jazeera

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