Tango With Rohani

Young Iranians participating in secret ballroom-dancing lessons have something in common with their president: All are learning to take two steps forward, one step back.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Iranian schoolgirls follow Rohani's speech on the country's draft budget at the parliament in Tehran, Iran, Sunday, Dec. 7, 2014
Iranian schoolgirls follow Rohani's speech on the country's draft budget at the parliament in Tehran, Iran, Sunday, Dec. 7, 2014Credit: AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The emergence of subversive schools for teaching ballroom dancing is the latest trend in Tehran. The Iranians have “discovered” this new pastime, which allows them to do something together in public as couples, and are willing to pay quite a bit for the pleasure – up to about $150 for 10 lessons, reported the Daily Beast last week, based on an article on IranWire.

Some of these studios operate under the cover of slightly more “proper” guises, such as gyms, and information about them is passed by word of mouth.

A series of photos published by CNN’s website last year deals with the penetration of Western cultural phenomena in Iranian cities.

You see supermarkets filled with Western-style wares, with women wearing head coverings filling up shopping carts with brands from all over the world – while staring down from above the shelves are pictures of the ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei. On Instagram one can see images of the children of wealthy Iranians wearing the finest Western fashions.

“Iran – not what you thought,” could be the headline for the pictures. But what else could we have thought about the Islamic Republic, after these and other Western media web outlets have tagged it over the years as a dark lair of primitiveness?

Yet it turns out, for example, that young Iranians – quelle surprise! – like exactly the same things as young people in the West do, but are forced to go to great expense and make a much greater effort to attain them.

It would seem that now, these young Iranians have a president willing to listen to them. President Hassan Rohani understands protesting students who have demanded the release of prisoners of the civil rebellion, which occurred in 2009 against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – who was then elected to a second term as president (he stepped down amid controversy in 2013, when Rohani came to power).

The current president promises to bring about the removal of all boycotts against Iran, and is not afraid of Facebook. But he, too, must tread carefully through the Iranian minefield.

“With the help of God," Rohani declared last month, "we will remove all the sanctions,” and the “cruel chain of sanctions” will finally be dismantled.

Iranian president Hassan Rohani speaks during the opening ceremony of the economic conference in Tehran on January 4, 2015.Credit: AFP

“Some people may not like to see the sanctions lifted, [but] their numbers are few, and they want to muddy the water,” he added. “The overwhelming majority of our nation – intellectuals, academics, theologians and the leadership – are in favor of getting the sanctions removed.”

Rohani’s accusations of those in favor of sanctions were aimed at his conservative rivals, and in particular the leadership of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, which continues to stick to its hard line and view the negotiations with the West over Iran’s nuclear program as an “American Zionist” deception, whose only goal is to harm Iranian interests.

Rohani’s critics accuse him of attempting to “cross the red lines” – in other words, to surrender to the demands of the West to stop enriching uranium and, specifically, to halt operations at the enrichment facility in Fordo; to convert the heavy water facility in Arak to one dealing with light water; and to transfer Iran’s enriched uranium to Russia.

Rohani’s aides are working constantly to emphasize his faithfulness to the framework for negotiations set by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Sometimes, his associates make tough declarations against concessions to the West, but it seems these are mostly intended to calm their critics, since at the same time they continue to hold a dialogue with the Western powers in advance of a planned formal meeting on January 15 in Geneva.

The advance talks have led to significant progress, and Iran has apparently agreed to transfer most of its uranium enriched to a level of greater than 5 percent, according to reports from The Associated Press.

It is still not clear whether this agreement answers U.S. demands in full, plus the issue of the number of operational centrifuges that will remain in Iranian hands has yet to be solved. However, at present it seems the negotiating tactics of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry have created positive momentum for the continuation of the talks.

The more these negotiations progress, the stronger the pressure on Rohani becomes, too – from both sides of the Iranian political spectrum. For example, there is pressure to meet the demands of the liberals to implement democratic reforms, free the prisoners from the 2009 rebellion, and present an economic plan that will carry out what Rohani promised during his election campaign.

At present, over 2.5 million Iranians are registered as being unemployed, government companies have fallen far behind in paying salaries, and the level of public services has been deteriorating.

Last week, some 900 factory workers went on strike in Arak, demanding the reinstatement of their fired leader. The factory is owned by the Revolutionary Guards, and after three days the company was forced to compromise and rehire the fired labor leader.

Even though the removal of economic sanctions could serve the numerous civilian factories owned by the Revolutionary Guards, the commanders of the Guards are continuing to agitate. Now they are demanding the establishment of a new government ministry for “soft war,” to replace the authority for “soft war” established in August.

“Soft war” is a term that encompasses means such as massive propaganda, cyber attacks and, in particular, resistance to the spread of Western ideology.

These same elements are also demanding funding to carry out the mission of “holy defense” – a phrase from the days of the Iran-Iraq War, which has been reinterpreted as the fight against what is called a Western "attack."

All these demands are being presented now, when the price of oil has dropped to new lows, and Iranian government coffers are quickly emptying out. Rohani is being forced to maneuver carefully between these two loci of power.

On the one hand, he is interested in advancing the negotiations with the West and signing a final agreement on the nuclear issue, with a target date of June 30. On the other, he must demonstrate firmness that will soothe his critics.

So Rohani, too, it turns out, is being forced to adopt a strategy of ballroom dancing: two steps forward, one step back – or maybe the opposite.

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