What do Obama and Rouhani have in common?

The US and Iran resemble each other in stunning ways.

Obama and Rouhani face similar political challenges at home, writes the author [Reuters]

The United States and Iran are said to be sworn enemies. US politicians, especially in the Congress, are still trying their best to intensify the economic chokehold on Iran, even as the preliminary nuclear deal takes effect. They are not interested in giving Iran a chance to prove itself because they have a preconceived forecast of the results.

For all the official enmity, if not hatred, what is most puzzling is to observe the many ways in which the two countries resemble each other politically. This is especially true with regard to both countries’ domestic political challenges – and I don’t just mean the obstacles both President Barack Obama and President Hassan Rouhani face over implementing any kind of nuclear deal at home.

The ironic parallels extend far beyond the events that are making headlines. To begin with, both countries have reformist presidents, even though Obama is now in his second term, while Rouhani just began his first term in office. 

Two reformers, sort of

Both politicians rose to the top post rather unexpectedly. And both were carried into their high office by a sudden wave of popularity and economic discontent that helped them outflank old foxes, whether Hillary Clinton and John McCain in Obama’s case or a range of conservatives in Rouhani’s.

Listening Post – News Divide: Reshaping Iran’s image

There are also real doubts about how reformist both presidents actually are. Obama may be called a “socialist” by Republicans, but is widely seen as a pure establishment politician even by many Democrats.

And Rouhani is a conservative cleric, a former nuclear negotiator, traditionally close to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and, despite his public image, hardly a softie.

In short, campaign rhetoric aside, both Obama and Rouhani have always acted as part and parcel of their country’s respective political establishments.

Stubborn opposition

Despite this conformism, both men’s efforts at implementing reforms, however modest, are faced with fierce domestic opposition. In Iran’s case, the battle is over human rights in general. In the US case, it’s over healthcare, which is also a core human right.

In Obama’s case, virtually all his efforts are met with a veritable blockade by the Republicans in both houses of Congress, and especially so in the House of Representatives. His Republican adversaries are basically not prepared to give him an inch, while always demanding at least an arm from Obama in any negotiations.

Rouhani isn’t much luckier in Iran. His country’s parliament is even more dominated by conservatives than is the case in the US. The conservatives are giving him a hard time getting his cabinet selections appointed – just as Obama has experienced on numerous occasions.

By comparison, the US president – hard though it may be to believe – actually is the luckier of the two. In Iran, the parliament is threatening to impeach ministers appointed by Rouhani – for such “crimes” as appointing reformers to leadership positions of the higher education ministry.

Conservative courts in both places

As is the case with the US Supreme Court, Iran’s judiciary is a bastion of conservatism.This explains why social media such as Facebook and Twitter are deemed illegal.The reasoning behind it is that they view their country as being in a permanent war against the West.

Supplant that Iranian cause with the war on terrorism, and you have a direct parallel in the US. Measured against Western traditions, the US courts and government agencies, such as the NSA, have equally grossly overreached in many ways. And not to be outdone by Iran, they have often justified their acts with unspecified threats from abroad.

Iran’s and US conservatives: Starting out together

None of this is accidental. Even when you look at the two countries, their respective revolutionary events were very closely related, not just time-wise.

Iran’s clerics came in 1979, when Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini seized power. From the vantage point of US Republicans, their seminal event happened soon after, in November 1980, with the election of Ronald Reagan.

An early triumph for the Reagan Revolution was supplied by Iran’s ayatollahs. They withheld the return of Iran’s US hostages until Jimmy Carter had left the White House and Reagan was freshly ensconced. Yes, currying favours with Washington was once their modus operandi.

Despair in both conservative camps

Over three decades later, the hardliners in both countries are acting in an especially obstinate fashion. Why?

Iran and the US may see themselves as nemeses, but in reality, the two countries’ domestic politics shadow, and even copy, each other in stunning ways.

Because both live with the same mortal fear. With good reason, they worry that their message no longer resonates with the population at large. More and more, it can only reach the true believers, whether it’s Tea Party folks in the US case or religious conservatives in the Iranian case.

It is never pleasant for any political grouping that has long called the shots domestically to lose the hold over power and see its popular support slipping significantly.

In Iran, the conservatives tried to stem what seems like the inevitable by engaging in populist economic policies. But former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s efforts to keep prices down has only led to galloping inflation, currently at 40 percent, and high unemployment rates.

Inflation may be low in the US case, but unemployment is high. In both countries, public investment has been disproportionately focused on military matters, whether the nuclear issue in Iran’s case or defence goods in the US one.

As a result of believing that power was slipping away, Republican leaders such as Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, have made no secret of their intent to engage in nothing but obfuscation when it comes to dealing with the sitting president.

Demograpthics, another common factor in both countries, are moving Iran and US away from the conservative camps – the ayatollahs and the Republicans. With one-third of the population of Iran under 30, the stern interpretation of religion no longer serves as a tool for social control.

In the US’ case, it is the ever-growing shares of immigrants that reshapes the US population and its electorate. Just as Iranian conservatives are not endearing themselves to the young with their policies, so do Republicans who seem to cast a death wish upon themselves.

How else could one possibly understand the Republicans’ consistent refusal to pursue any policies that could make them attractive, for example, to Hispanic voters?  

Protecting economic elites

One final ironic parallel: Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, far from their role as custodians of the revolution, are mostly interested these days in using their power to preserve their influence in the Iranian economy.

US Republicans play a similar game. With their insistence on no new taxes, and historically low rates on the rich (who mostly pay capital gains taxes, not income taxes), they are clear about what they see as their mandate: protecting the (past) winners in the US economic race.

In conclusion, Iran and the US may see themselves as nemeses, but in reality, the two countries’ domestic politics shadow, and even copy, each other in stunning ways. 

Stephan Richter is the publisher and editor-in-chief of The Globalist, the daily online magazine, and a columnist in newspapers around the world. He is also the presenter of the Marketplace Globalist Quiz, which is aired on public radio stations all across the US. In addition, Mr. Richter is  the author of the 1992 book, “Clinton: What Europe and the United States Can Expect”.

Follow him on Twitter: @theglobalist