A Year After His Election, Rohani Is Changing Iran Without Shaking It Up

It’s not just the interim nuclear deal with the powers. The new president is getting tough with the Revolutionary Guard and promoting civil rights.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Iranian President Hassan Rohani shakes hands with his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Iranian President Hassan Rohani shakes hands with his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.Credit: AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“Our goal is to establish a modern and developed Iran,” Hassan Rohani said in a newspaper interview in 1995. “It will be a model state for all Muslims and a slap in the face to all the mistaken notions about Islam — statements claiming that Islam is incapable of running a society and that religious culture is incapable of building a developed society.”

It’s doubtful whether Iran’s liberals and reformers who voted for Rohani a year ago would agree that his first year in office has marked a turning point for human and civil rights, or that it has softened the hard-line religious stance in the justice and education systems.

But they also can’t ignore that hotel occupancy in northern Tehran has risen by dozens of percentage points since Tehran signed the interim nuclear agreement in November, that businessmen are flocking to Iran, that political prisoners have been released and that, most importantly, Rohani doesn’t flinch at criticism of his government’s conducting of the nuclear talks with the world powers.

The talks are not taking place without the support of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, but Rohani’s ability to maintain a stable relationship with the ayatollah proves that his personality and positions have great influence — and maybe even a decisive effect — on Khamenei’s decision-making.

From the day he was elected, and even during his election campaign, Rohani said “I wouldn’t be running if I wasn’t sure I would win.” That was a daring statement, especially when considering he was running against candidates closer to Khamenei.

But Rohani forged a coalition including parliament chairman Ali Larijani, Rohani’s teacher and mentor, former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, religious-law jurists and liberal movements that only went over to Rohani after Rafsanjani’s candidacy was disqualified.

Rohani based his strategy on two principles: utilitarianism and respect. Anything that could serve the country’s interests was worthy of promotion if no humiliation, surrender or insults were involved. These were the principles he marketed to Khamenei, leaving the definition of utility and respect in his own hands (for the time being).

When the newspaper Kayhan, whose editor was appointed by Khamenei, wrote that “fortunately, the [nuclear] talks in Vienna were cut off,” he was reprimanded. This month military chief of staff Hassan Firouzabadi warned that “if the heads of media outlets don’t improve their working methods, we will deal with them.” He was referring to the harshly critical reports in newspapers closely associated with the Revolutionary Guard.

“We ought to be proud of our president,” Firouzabadi said. “We must put all our effort into supporting the government so it can move the country forward under the sensitive circumstances.”

Even the Revolutionary Guard began to change its tune toward Rohani; its commander welcomed Rohani’s intention to continue including the Guard in economic projects even though he had declared at the beginning of his term that the group shouldn’t interfere in the economy. Rohani too understands that the Revolutionary Guard, which owns roughly one-third of the Iranian economy, can’t be uprooted easily.

At the same time, the Guard’s leaders know that the nuclear agreement could prove an abundant source of projects. Yes, the waning criticism of Rohani and the nuclear talks depends on Khamenei, but Rohani’s wisdom and ability to forge agreements with rivals laid the political groundwork for the talks. When the parties hold another round of negotiations in Vienna starting Monday, Rohani’s efforts could help launch a draft of a final agreement.

Rohani is also carrying out his utility-and-respect principle in his efforts to expand Iran’s links with countries in the Middle East. The list proving Rohani’s intent to make Iran a legitimate state in the region is long: the invitation of his foreign minister to Saudi Arabia, the hints that a high-level Iranian delegation will visit Riyadh, the visit by Kuwait’s ruler to Iran, Rohani’s invitation to the presidential swearing-in ceremony in Egypt, Rohani’s extensively covered visit to Turkey despite the disagreement over Syria and the signing of trade agreements.

Rohani’s reception in the West as a man to be taken seriously helps him promote Iran’s standing in the Middle East. For example, Saudi Arabia put out feelers to Iran only after it realized that the United States had changed tack and envisioned not only a nuclear agreement with Iran but also normalized relations. Egypt wouldn’t have invited Rohani if it hadn’t received a nod from Saudi Arabia, all the more so after the direct talks between Washington and Tehran.

But Rohani’s successes abroad haven’t helped him domestically. Inflation is at 32.5 percent and new jobs will only be created once the economic sanctions are lifted. Gross domestic product is only expected to grow 1.5 percent this year, so a higher standard of living is still far off.

During his election campaign, Rohani presented a “civil rights charter” with 10 clauses. It stressed efforts to improve women’s status, let minorities study in their native languages, dial back censorship and respect equality among citizens.

Rohani is consistent in his efforts to promote civil rights; as early as 2011 he published a thick book devoted entirely to the age of criminal responsibility for minors. In the book he harshly criticized the difference between the age of responsibility for girls, 9, and boys, 14 . This strongly challenged the positions of the conservative ayatollahs.

Rohani was elected in June and began his term in August, so he has two more months to chalk up achievements during his first year in office. Iranian officials are already saying “it will be better next year” — under Rohani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, last year was always better.

Ahmadinejad rides the bus to work

The former president earned $250 per month during his term — not from the salary he forwent because “the money belongs to the people,” but from the university where he worked as a lecturer. Since completing his term in August, he has returned to the Iran University of Science and Technology, where he has a modest office.

Ahmadinejad rides the bus to work, and, based on the pictures from there, he seems happy. It appears the university is happy too since, shortly before completing his term, Ahmadinejad reportedly transferred around $120 million from the president’s fund to the university.

Ahmadinejad is also busy elsewhere. Despite his tense relations with Khamenei, the supreme leader appointed him a member of the Expediency Discernment Council, a key body for forming domestic and foreign policy. Ahmadinejad also appears beside Khamenei at public events.

His close associates say he’s not wealthy, doesn’t own a house or luxury car, isn’t surrounded by bodyguards and doesn’t go on trips abroad. But these associates, such as his brother Davoud, say the former president doesn’t intend to leave the political world entirely.

According to Iran’s constitution, he can run for a third term as president in another three years. Meanwhile, many of his appointees are working to preserve his legacy and prepare the ground for his return.

He’s not the only one planning his future. His rivals are working against his close associates; one of them, billionaire Mahafarid Amir Khosravi, was hanged last month for his role in a $2.6 billion banking scam. Khosravi was in charge of the copper workers’ pension fund; he was appointed by Ahmadinejad. More trials of people close to him are expected to end in the coming weeks; Ahmadinejad, too, has cases pending against him.

Among the charges against Ahmadinejad are failure to prevent the deaths of Iranians by not investing in transportation infrastructure, management irregularities and enormous expenses during his trip to the United States. It’s not yet clear whether he’ll be put on trial, since his rivals and Khamenei aware that such a spectacle could expose unpleasant secrets embarrassing the country’s leaders.



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