International American Council

International American Council
Middle East and North Africa

Will Iran’s new president liberalize the nation?

In a speech last week given to a group of Shi’a Muslim clerics, Iranian president-elect Hassan Rouhani insisted that “a powerful and capable government does not mean a government which meddles in and is in control of all affairs, restricts people and their lives, and meddles in people’s private lives. 

Specifically, he has urged away from the filtering of websites, a common complaint among Iranians who wish for increased free speech. In another interview with a national youth magazine, he maintained that this practice “only creates a big wall of mistrust between the government and the people.”

Along the lines of this freedom of speech-promoting agenda, he has also hinted that he may free some of Iran’s many imprisoned dissident journalists from jail, and also has advocated for “participation in parties and preservation of [citizens’] ethnicity,” a nod to Iranian Arabs living in Khuzestan province as well as to the country’s many Kurds. Curtailed freedom of expression for minority groups has been a bone of contention for these groups and countless others.

During June’s presidential election, Rouhani was backed by former reformist president Mohammad Khatami, who was in office from 1997 to 2005. He was also supported by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was president from 1989 until Khatami succeeded him in 1997, and who was notable for his economic reforms (although not for any social reforms).

Khatami’s support of Rouhani is perhaps symbolic. Khatami is internationally famous for offering Iran avenues for the rule of law and freedom of speech, as well as religious tolerance. For years, many believed Khatami would offer Iran a new direction. However, at many turns he was stymied by supreme leader Ali Khamenei and conservative politicians on one hand, and the numerous bickering factions of dissident groups on the other.

In the end, Khatami was succeeded by conservative politician Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who backpedaled on many of Khatami’s human rights reforms, leading to several major sets of protests over the nearly eight years he was in office. 

It is unclear whether or not Rouhani’s reformist mindset is part of an inevitable pattern of alternate liberalization and tightening, or a lasting directional change for the country. For now, the Republic of Iran has not existed in its Islamic iteration long enough to determine whether or not cycles of liberalization will prove a pattern at all.

It is also unclear to what extent Rouhani will actually attempt to institute reforms. He campaigned in a circumspect manner, with respect and dues paid to the Iranian political institutions from which he rose. For much of his political career, from 1989 until 2005, he was secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, and he has also been a member of the Assembly of Experts, a body of theologians closely associated with the supreme leader. 

For now, many both within and without Iran’s borders are too cautious to label him a true reformist, and he has mostly been referred to as a moderate by the international press. 

Regardless of how reformist Rouhani proves to be over the course of his term, as supreme leader, Khamenei will retain hold over much of the political power in Iran, and will undoubtedly have the final word on most major policy shifts, although he has supported Rouhani’s election and ascension.

By Laura Gates 

Source: The New York Times, CNN, BBC, Gulf News

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