Is Iran really changing under Rouhani?

The outcome of the struggle between the country’s moderates and conservatives will shape its policy choices.

The 'new Iranians' would like the new administration to sever ties with the recent past, writes Tamimi [Getty]

It is hard to dispute the assertion that the political discourse of the Hassan Rouhani-led administration represents not merely a change, but perhaps even a coup in Iranian politics.

Some of this new discourse is published or aired in the media. But the most significant – and profoundly indicative – discourse is held behind closed doors in private meetings conducted by emissaries of the new Tehran administration in Western capitals.

Some of these diplomats and politicians, often in the guise of academics or analysts, had until President Rouhani’s recent election been sidelined during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s eight-year reign over Iranian politics.

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The new Iran

The new discourse is mostly aimed at the West, and specifically, the US. Above all, the “new Iranians” are keen to see the new administration sever ties with the recent past, a past characterised by hostile postures vis-a-vis the US.

They say it is a break from ideologically-inspired politics in favour of politics motivated by interests, or to use a more technical idiom real politik.

The “new Iranians” confess that the main catalyst for such a transformation, which started with the ascent of a “moderate” president, has certainly been the economic sanctions. The upper echelons of authority in Iran feared that the hardships created by the sanctions were likely to spark a new popular uprising. An uprising at such a time would have been devastating when Iran and its regional allies were actively engaged in suppressing another popular uprising in Syria.

Severing ties with the past includes a campaign aimed at discrediting the previous administration, which is accused of large-scale corruption and the squandering of billions of dollars of public funds. These accusations, some of which have been reported in the world press, are routinely spoken about in closed-door meetings. 

One of the claims made by the so-called new Iranians was that Iran never sought to develop nuclear weapons because “this would contravene Islamic values”. This ludicrous explanation prompted someone to ask: “Would you consider Pakistanis bad Muslims because they developed the nuclear bomb?” 

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the new Iranians’ endeavour to say as little as possible. If pressed to give an opinion, they say that whatever the Palestinians and the Israelis agree among themselves would be acceptable to Iran. An Iranian academic close to Rouhani was unequivocal, stating: “Who are we to decide on behalf of the Palestinians what they should or should not accept?”

This posture is confirmed by Palestinian Authority (PA) officials who had recently been to Iran on an official visit. They say they were assured by the Iranians that the new regime would support whatever the Palestinian people choose and that whatever the negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians yield is their business. According to one PA official, the Iranians treated them with utmost respect at the time when Iran’s “relations with Hamas are at their worst”.

Some Iran experts say that a real struggle is taking place within the circles of power between the so-called moderates and the radicals. They advise that one should not underestimate the repercussions of the pragmatic drive of the Rouhani administration.

Moderates vs radicals?

Asked whether Iran, under the new administration, would be willing to recognise Israel, the Iranian academic said: “Let the Palestinians and the Israelis reach a deal and then we’ll see.”

As for the accusation that Iran intervenes in the domestic affairs of its neighbours, the new Iranians deny any such involvement, even in Bahrain. They even go so far as claiming that Bahrain’s Shia population criticise Iran for doing too little to help their uprising against the monarchy.

On the topic of Syria, the new Iranians are defiant. “Why, out of all dictatorships in the region, do you want to bring the Syrian regime down?” asked one pro-Rouhani academic.

Whatever question he is asked, his cliche answer is: “Why are you picking on Iran when all other regional and international powers have their fingers immersed in Syria’s affairs?”

It is interesting to note that in such discussions, there is no reference to Iran’s role in Syria in terms of supporting a regime that is resistant or opposed to Israel. 

Some Iran experts believe a real struggle is taking place within the circles of power between the so-called moderates and radicals. They advise that one should not underestimate the repercussions of the pragmatic drive of the Rouhani administration.

On the other hand, there are those who view this apparent change in Iranian discourse as nothing but a division of labour. They reject the notion that what is happening in Iran under Rouhani implies an integral shift, insisting that Iran’s warming up to the West is nothing more than a ploy to ease – if not end – the crippling sanctions.

Azzam Tamimi is a British-Palestinian writer, analyst and commentator with a doctorate in political philosophy from the University of Westminster in London.