Earlier this month, Iran inaugurated its new president, Hassan Rouhani—clearly the most moderate candidate in the running.
Ahmadinejad filled a certain niche in the American psyche.
This outcome illustrates the growing desire for change among the people of Iran. The situation resembles Eastern Europe in the 1970s: The people are not yet at a point where they can bring down the regime, but the ideological hegemony that kept the system intact is gone. Just as Eastern European workers recognized that the system under which they were suffering bore little resemblance to its professed socialist ideology, Iranian Muslims—even those who support the Islamic Revolution in principle—are recognizing that the “Islamic Republic” is a poor reflection of both Islamic values and a republican system.
The inauguration of Rouhani as Iran’s seventh president was a hopeful sign for the future of Iran and of U.S.-Iranian relations. This is not to say that change will be imminent. The presidency in Iran is constitutionally weak. The real power lies with the Ayatollah Khamenei and the conservative Shiite clerics and jurists who sit on the Council of Guardians. It is likely that the right-wing religious establishment will attempt to thwart any efforts toward major reform, just as they did with the previous reformist president, Mohammed Khatami, who was in office between 1997 and 2005.
It is also important to recognize that Rouhani, while more moderate than many in the Iranian political establishment, is the product of a system in which the range of views is limited. Only those who support a theocratic state with real limits on individual freedoms are allowed to participate.
At the same time, the fact that a majority of Iranians would vote for the candidate who was clearly the least conservative of the presidential contenders and the last choice of the clerical establishment is indicative of the Iranian people’s desire for a society that is more supportive of human rights and less confrontational toward the West.
With the surprise election of Rouhani, U.S. officials are emphasizing how little power the Iranian president actually has—just as they did when Khatami was in office. By contrast, when the extremist and capricious Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was in office, these same officials would act as if he was the most powerful figure in the country, a man who could unilaterally attack Israel or engage in other acts of aggression.
Ahmadinejad filled a certain niche in the American psyche formerly filled by the likes of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi—the Middle Eastern leader we most love to hate. It gave Americans a sense of righteous superiority to compare ourselves to these seemingly irrational and fanatical foreign leaders.
Iran has an impressive history of civil resistance on which to draw.
If these autocrats can be inflated into far greater threats than they actually are, this can justify the enormous financial and human cost of maintaining American armed forces in that volatile region to protect ourselves and our allies, and even to make war against far-off nations in “self-defense.” Such inflated threats also have the added bonus of silencing critics of America’s overly militarized Middle East policy, since anyone who dares to challenge the hyperbole and exaggerated claims regarding these leaders’ misdeeds or to provide a more balanced and realistic assessment of the actual threat they represent can then be depicted as naive apologists for dangerous fanatics who threaten our national security.
Rouhani’s election makes that more difficult.
But will Rouhani’s election as president actually lead to reforms? The answer depends on two major factors: the responses from the United States and from Iranian civil society.
How will the U.S. respond?
The first is whether the United States will respond favorably to the clear choice by the Iranian people to pursue better relations with the West. While as strongly nationalistic as their more conservative counterparts, the supporters of Rouhani recognize that the unnecessarily provocative positions taken by Ahmadinejad were hurting the country. By isolating Iran from the rest of the world, these positions gave Iranian leaders a greater ability to limit civil liberties and crush dissent in the name of national security.
Indeed, the post-revolutionary history of Iran shows a clear pattern: A reduction in foreign threats increases the prospects for democratic change, while an increase strengthens autocratic elements.
Ongoing resistance has forced the regime to jail many of the Iranian Revolution’s own leadership.
The United States’ big mistake in Vietnam was failing to recognize that the power of the Vietnamese revolutionaries came from their ability to rally the nationalist sentiments of their people. Like them, the Islamist leaders of Iran have been successful in appealing to nationalism when they feel their country is unfairly targeted. Indeed, a number of social scientists have noted how Iranians are among the most stridently nationalistic people in the world.
That nationalism has been fed by draconian sanctions pushed by the United States, U.S. funding of right-wing opposition groups dedicated to “regime change,” and explicit threats of war from Washington. Regardless of most Iranians’ feelings about the regime, nationalist passions are inevitably stirred up in the face of such threats from the United States, along with U.N. sanctions over a nuclear program that has thus far been entirely peaceful. While apparently more willing to compromise, Rouhani, like most Iranians, is determined not to unconditionally capitulate to Western pressure regarding the nuclear program. Even government critics note how nearby regional powers Israel, Pakistan, and India—which, like Iran, are in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions regarding their nuclear programs but, unlike Iran, have actually developed sizable arsenals of nuclear weapons—are not being sanctioned and maintain close military and economic relations with the United States.
Rouhani’s elections sends a clear message that the Iranian people are interested in ending the country’s isolation and improving relations with the United States by negotiating a mutually agreeable settlement.
Unfortunately, rather than respond positively to Rouhani’s election, the U.S. House of Representatives—just two days before his inauguration—voted to impose punitive new sanctions on Iran, apparently rejecting the new president’s offer to enhance nuclear transparency and pursue “peace and reconciliation” with the West. A large group of American experts on Iran and former officials—as well as Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA) and fifteen other members of Congress—urged leaders in the House of Representatives to delay the vote until after Rouhani was inaugurated and was given an opportunity to lead the nuclear negotiations. Yet House Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Steny Hoyer (D-MD) joined Republican leaders is pushing through the punitive sanctions bill despite the risks of sabotaging talks that could offer the best chance to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
As Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) noted, “Why aren’t we at least curious to find out whether or not President Rouhani means that he wants to pursue this course of peace?”
What about the Iranian people?
The second variable is whether Iranian civil society, despite years of repression under both the Islamic Republic and the Shah, can mobilize in support of reforms and against the reactionary forces that currently dominate the country.
Fortunately, Iran has an impressive history of civil resistance on which to draw:
In 1890, unpopular concessions of tobacco and other products to the British led Shia clerics to call for a nationwide tobacco strike, which succeeded in forcing the Shah to cancel the concession in early 1892.
While the repression has made overt protests rare, many thousands of tiny acts of resistance occur every day.
In 1905, in opposition to widespread corruption by the Qajar dynasty and allied regional nobles, a popular, largely nonviolent uprising resulted in significant political and social reforms, including the establishment of an elected parliament to share power with the Shah and anti-corruption measures.
When a CIA-sponsored coup in 1953 ousted the elected nationalist Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh and his nationalist supporters and returned the exiled Shah to power as an absolute monarch, Iranian civil society suffered greatly under the monarchy’s brutal American-trained secret police, known as the SAVAK.
Open resistance began in 1977, when exiled opposition leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini called for boycotts, tax refusal, and other forms of noncooperation with the Shah’s regime. Despite brutal repression, Iranians employed many of the methods that would be used in the nonviolent insurrections that toppled dictatorships in the Philippines, Latin America, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere in subsequent years: mass demonstrations, strikes, contestation of public space, and the establishment of parallel institutions. The Shah fled on January 16, 1979, and Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile two weeks later.
While the revolution had the support of a broad cross-section of society (including Islamists, secularists, nationalists, laborers, and ethnic minorities), the Shah’s repression had so weakened the secular and leftist opposition that Khomeini and other leading Shia clerics, strengthened by a pre-existing network of social service and other parallel institutions, were able to consolidate their hold on power. As a result, these ultraconservative clerics were able to establish an Islamist theocracy that ruthlessly suppressed pro-democracy forces and has ruled ever since.
The Islamic Republic’s authoritarianism has also been met with resistance, most notably in the aftermath of the 2009 presidential election, in which the incumbent Ahmadinejad was declared the winner despite his apparent loss to the popular reformist Mir-Hossein Mousavi. In the weeks that followed, the people of Iran rose up in another popular civil insurrection, which this time was brutally crushed.
Ongoing resistance to the repression, corruption, economic injustice, imposition of ultraconservative social policies, and poor treatment of women and minorities has led to so much dissent that it has forced the regime to jail many of the Iranian Revolution’s own leadership, including former Prime Minister Mousavi, former parliamentary leader Mehdi Karroubi, and prominent clerics.
While the repression has made overt protests rare, many thousands of tiny acts of resistance occur every day, from satellite dishes hidden behind rooftop cisterns and women quietly defying segregation decrees to clandestine rendezvous by young lovers. Fewer and fewer Iranians still recognize the legitimacy of the regime. It is only a matter of time before the people will again rise up and demand their freedom.
Rouhani’s election, in defeating the preferred candidates of the reactionary leadership and bringing hope for change, may have brought that day closer.
Stephen Zunes is a leading scholar of U.S. Middle East policy and strategic nonviolent action. He is a professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco, where he serves as coordinator of the program in Middle Eastern studies. He also serves as an associate editor of Peace Review, a contributing editor of Tikkun, an academic adviser for the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, and a senior policy analyst for Foreign Policy in Focus, a project of the Institute for Policy Studies.