Speaking before the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Iranian President Hassan Rohani said that everyone in Iran can hook up to satellite television stations and that one can see satellite dishes on roofs in every Iranian village. A few days later, Iran’s semi-official news agency Fars publicized color photos of armored troop-carriers and a shiny new, red steamroller crushing dozens of satellite dishes plucked from the roofs of Iranian homes and destroyed in the presence of a group of government officials supervising this important cultural operation.
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Iranian law does not permit the installation of satellite dishes and, from time to time, an Iranian agency known as the Culture Authority leaps into action, sending its workers to destroy what the agency describes in its explanation of such operations as a source that is polluting Iranian culture and allowing Western depravity to enter private homes. In most cases, this is a symbolic operation, affecting a few dozen homes – in unusual cases, hundreds of homes – and its aim is to frighten Iranian citizens into “voluntarily” taking down their dishes. However, much to the displeasure of the country’s religious authorities, Iranians are continuing to install dishes and to link up to satellite broadcasts. Apparently, those who are interested in damaging Rohani’s image purposely timed this event to cool down the winds of conciliation that have begun to blow between Iran and America.
Rohani knows who his enemies are; as long as most of the members of the Iranian parliament and Iran’s spiritual leader Ali Khamenei continue to back his diplomatic campaign (although Khamenei has noted that some of Rohani’s actions are unacceptable), the Iranian President’s critics will have to settle for writing what they think about him in their newspapers and criticizing him in speeches at various conferences. Last week, former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Rohani’s political guide, “dared” to demand a halt to the use of the slogan, “Death to America,” which is shouted by officially mobilized demonstrators at every opportunity. Rafsanjani stated that the late-Ayatollah Khomeini himself had forbidden the use of such slogans.
The explanation was primarily directed at Khamenei and the commanders of the Basij paramilitary forces, a voluntary organization that is attached to the Revolutionary Guards and which initiates and participates in demonstrations where the slogan is used. Meanwhile, commanders in the Revolutionary Guards and the Iranian army are continuing to explain to their troops that the term “heroic flexibility, coined by Khamenei, signals a change in tactics, not strategy. The deputy head of the political department in the Iranian navy even described the present conditions as being similar to the ones that existed at the time of the signing of the agreement that led to the conquest of Mecca by the Prophet Mohammed.
According to Rohani, negotiations on Iran’s development of nuclear technology and on its uranium enrichment activities are out of the question, although it is possible to talk about the details of these two issues. It is important to note that, with regard to the two issues, the West is interested in details, not principles. This might be the main difference between Rohani and his predecessor. At this stage, Rohani is not clarifying which technology Iran wants to continue developing. He is talking about conciliation with the U.S. as a principle that must be obtained and has related that he told American President Barack Obama in their telephone conversation that a conflict that has lasted decades cannot be ended in 10 days, although the possibility of ending it does exist. In Iran, however, alluding to the presidency of his predecessor, he spoke of a conflict that has lasted eight or ten years.
No one is expecting that a solution to the historical, nuclear and economic dispute between Tehran and Washington can be achieved in 10 days. However, unlike Ahmadinejad, Rohani proposes a new long-range vision, and not just with the U.S. In a meeting with journalists following a cabinet meeting last week, he talked about his foreign policy successes, showcasing four important events: his inauguration ceremony, which was attended by the representatives of 55 countries, 11 of whom were heads of state; the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, where many of the participants spoke with Rohani about the future of relations between their respective countries and Iran; a meeting of P5+1 (the United States, Russia, China, U.K., France and Germany,) where the foreign ministers of the respective countries expressed, according to Rohani, a certain degree of understanding for Tehran’s position; and, of course, his appearance and speech before the United Nations General Assembly. It would appear that the Iranian President has adopted Turkey’s foreign policy approach of “zero problems with neighbors”; one can only hope that Iran’s new foreign policy will not crash-land like Turkey’s.
It’s not only with other countries that things need to be smoothed over. The country’s citizens are looking forward to dramatic economic changes and to a significant improvement in the protection of human rights in their country. A non-nuclear time-bomb is ticking away furiously in Iran’s institutions of higher learning, which this year are being attended by more than 4.3 million students.
According to figures released by the Iranian foundation for the cultivation of elites, established in 2005, more than 13,000 new Iranian scientists were registered last year, while 712 outstanding high school science graduates and 350 top university students have left the country. This brain drain is just one of the blows that have been dealt to Iranian science, the other problem being the sharp reduction in jobs for millions of university graduates due to the sanctions.
The connection between foreign policy and domestic problems is one of interdependence. If Rohani cannot bring about a lifting of the sanctions, he will become a pawn in the hands of his rivals and his presidency will turn into a farce. Rohani, who has no days of grace as a newly-installed president, might find himself in the same plight as former President Mohammad Khatami, who was left with nice-sounding slogans, but no political influence. Paradoxically, the efforts for conciliation with the West are trapping Rohani in an equation that has no exit door. He has four to eight years to save Iran; however, failure might arrive much earlier.