JOHN TULLOH. The winds of change in Iran.

May 22, 2017

‘Iran’s nation chose the path of interaction with the world, away from violence and extremism’. President Hassan Rouhani on his election victory looks forward to a fresh new era for Iran. 

Many in the West must have been relieved that Hassan Rouhani, the moderate incumbent looking for progressive change, won the Iranian presidential election so resoundingly. So were many of the well-educated Iranian urban citizens who are anxious to break free of the autocratic, quasi-religious shackles which have governed a large portion of their lives. They want something fresher, newer, different and far more enlightened than before.

After 38 years of hardline rule, Iran is on the cusp of change. The election result was a rebuff to the conservative clerics who had stifled the economy, removed freedoms, imposed religious laws and spread their tentacles into neighbouring countries. In the process, they had isolated Iran with their hostile attitudes and engendered a bleak outlook for their countrymen. Just ask all those asylum-seekers why they came to Australia.

The fact that twice as many people in Tehran voted this time compared with Rouhani’s landslide victory in 2013 underlined a growing clamour for a freer and more opportunistic way of life rather than that envisioned under his opponents whom he described as ‘dangerously backward-looking’, according to the Guardian.

Kasha Naji, of the BBC Persian Service, was emphatic: ‘This was the revenge of the people against the hardliners who intimidated them, jailed them, drove them into exile, pushed them out of their jobs and discriminated against women’, he wrote.

The victory his, Rouhani wasted no time in asserting himself and sending a defiant message to the conservatives. He praised former President Mohammad Khatami despite a ban imposed against mentioning the reformist leader or publishing his picture. He posted on Instagram a photo of a family celebrating the result with three of the younger women wearing colourful clothes and headscarves set back so far on their heads that they are barely visible.

More importantly, he told voters: ‘You have pulled out the history of our country away from inertia and doubt…Our nation’s message in this election was clear: Iran’s nation chose the path of interaction with the world, away from violence and extremism’.

Now Rouhani has three formidable immediate tasks to fulfill the faith put in him by his millions of supporters.

  1. To win the approval of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s ultimate arbiter of policy, for the changes he has in mind.
  2. To motivate the economy and create jobs. Although the lifting of most sanctions two years ago failed to boost Iran’s fortunes as promised, the economy did in fact grow by 6.6% in the past year, according to the IMF. But much more is needed to appease the restless millennials and their high unemployment rate. They represent the development and prosperity of Iran’s future.
  3. To reassure foreign investors that Iran is open for normal business once more and they have nothing to fear about the well-being of their euros, pounds, dollars, yen or RMB. Upgrading infrastructure long neglected by sanctions is where investment is badly needed

But lurking in the background is the world’s own self-appointed arbiter of international policy, Uncle Sam, who still hasn’t forgiven the humiliation of the anti-US Iranian revolution 38 years ago. ‘The Trump administration’s national security officials are on record as considering Iran the source of most of the Middle East’s troubles’, reports the New York Times, ‘while the Republican-controlled Congress is not about to loosen the unilateral sanctions which are frightening off banks and businesses’.

Rouhani is not to be dissuaded. ‘We will break all the sanctions against Iran’, he vowed in the week before the election. That will mean some radical changes in outlook and practices to satisfy the Americans in particular that Iran is now a responsible nation in keeping with Rouhani’s vision.

On top of those challenges, Rouhani will be bearing in mind the question of the all-powerful next Supreme Leader in view that Khamenei at 77 is said to be ailing. He can be sure that his main vanquished conservative opponent, Ebrahim Raisi, will be as well. That is not a vote for the electorate. It is for last year’s hand-picked Assembly of Experts. According to Reuters, Rouhani has a strong presence there which may well help potential investors overcome their concerns.

FOOTNOTE. Just as Rouhani was pledging a new vision for Iran, Donald Trump was wallowing in yet another gigantic American arms deal with Iran’s biggest regional rival, Saudi Arabia. This one amounts to US$110 billion – the biggest arms sale in American history –  turning Saudi Arabia into a military juggernaut. Rex Tillerson, the US Secretary of State, justified this by citing ‘the malign influence of Iran’. He conveniently overlooked Iran’s new outlook as well as Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabism, in which much of the 21st century’s terrorism has been waged and its funding of Islamic State.

John Tulloh had a 40-year career in foreign news.

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