Monday, December 9, 2013

Iranian President says he was ''Accountable to our People.''

In a speech marking his first 100 days in office two weeks ago, President Hassan Rouhani said he was being ''accountable to our people'', a popular message that has seldom, if ever, been heard in Iran.

With the recent signing of the interim nuclear agreement with the Western powers in Geneva, after speaking briefly with President Obama who helped set up the initial meeting in Oman, Rouhani can take pride in saying he succeeded in relieving Iran of the crushing burden of financial sanctions and is lessening Iran's isolation from the rest of the world. In fact, Rouhani had made a virtue of necessity. Going into the talks, Iran was characterized by a collapsing economy and a regime increasingly isolated from the world and from its own youthful, restive population. All had learned to look for signals from the strident style of that asshole, former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Half of Iran's population is under the age of 25, and, as New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof discovered on a lengthy road trip across Iran last year, most young adults are pro-American. They play video games, they have satellite television, they like sports cars and they dream of going abroad to Europe and the united States. These were the same young people who took to the streets of Tehran in 2009 in the Green Revolution (below), to protest the re-election of Ahmadinejad and who disobey the regime's strict laws every day. Women push up their sleeves, baring more skin than the law allows, young men drink alcohol and they flock to Iran's many amusement parks rather than the mosques.

If Iran were left alone, say some exiled Iranians in another decade or two it would moderate, the power of the clerics would fade and Iran would begin to resemble Turkey: Islamic, but socially moderate and economically free. But two decades is a long wait for millions of young Iranians who are increasingly influenced by Western culture but have less money and fewer opportunities as Iran has succumbed to the effect of international sanctions. Foreign-made luxuries became harder to find and it became difficult for Iranians to travel abroad.

Clearly, Rouhani sees the writing on the wall: The regime cannot maintain its hold on Iran over the long term if it is not seen to have legitimacy. He will have to pull up deep roots if he is to bring real change to Iran. The 1979 revolution that swept the theocratic regime into power marked a turning point  not only in Iran's dealings with the world but also with its citizens. Years of economic prosperity under Shah Reza Pahlavi gave way to repressive social and cultural practices forced on Iranians who observed them grudgingly.

The ''religious and moral purity'' claimed by the revolution's powerful clerics turned out to be illusory. One of the most powerful arms of the government, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, portrays itself as the guardian of the revolution. Its allegiance has a steep price; the Guard over time spread its tentacles into many facets of the Iranian economy, including profiting from financial interest in Iran's nuclear and missile programs. As with so many revolutions that go astray, Iran has devolved into a society with a small number of privileged elites who enjoy luxuries while the bulk of the population see its standard of living decline. The corruption among the powerful elites will not be easily resolved. Rouhani shows no desire to take on these entrenched people directly.

The Way I See It.....Rouhani will have room to manoeuvre for the time being. His policies on reducing inflation, relaxation of some security restrictions and the drafting of a citizen's rights document are well received by the man on the street, no small consideration for a regime that perhaps fears more than anything a popular uprising similar to 1979. Rouhani's policies are providing relief for a population disgruntled by the previous leadership. That alone seems to be winning him approval from Iran's Supreme leader Ali Khamenei ( photo right ).

Rouhani knows his domestic support is no unlimited. He has created and now must deal with rising expectations at home, and failure to meet them could derail his presidency. It remains to be seen whether he can negotiate a comprehensive deal on the nuclear problem. At the same time, hard-line elements within the government almost certainly will be unwilling to end a nuclear program that ran has built over decades which in turn would likely result in sanctions being restored. This is the ambitious agenda of an ardent nationalist who is taking a clear-eyed view of his nation's problems and challenges.

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