Iran's New president - a Chance for a Change?

Posted in Iran | 27-Jun-13 | Author: Tunne Kelam

Has something changed in Iran after unexpectedly quick and smooth presidential elections?  

Is Mr.  Rohani about to initiate a turn towards a more moderate policy?

Has there been a fight between „hawks“ and „doves“ which resulted in the „dove“  candidate’s surprising victory already in the first round?

Can we now expect more open and cooperative policies on such crucial issues as Iran’s secretive nuclear enrichment, systematic exports of terrorism and arms to other countries, especially to Syria, building long range missiles and suppressing all political discontent? 

Or is the triumph of the „moderate“ Hassan Rohani just part of the classical showcase which various dictators have used over the years to divert attention from the most critical problems they face, to alleviate foreign pressure on their regime and to create a desperately needed breathing space?

Let us first face some essential realities on Iran.   It is a highly centralized, determined and cruel dictatorship which has 34 years of experience in unscrupulously retaining the absolute power for the ruling theocratic elite. 

Real power is concentrated in the hands of the supreme religious leader whose reign has nothing to do with democracy.  It is Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who, with his closest group of mullahs, decides all the crucial moves in Iran’s policy. Before any „elections“ can take place, Khamenei selects the candidates who have to deserve his trust.  He selects only the people who have proven that they will serve the cause of their supreme leader with absolute loyalty. 

As for the latest presidential elections, Khameini’s  unelected committee of 12 mullahs brushed aside about 600 candidates, including all women, non- Muslims, Sunni Muslims and national minority representatives.  Only eight loyalists were allowed to enter the public stage where the ceremony of multi-candidate elections was performed.

Having spent more than half of my life in the totalitarian Soviet Union, I have to admit that the Iranian regime has succeeded in developing a much more sophisticated model of „guided democracy“ in order to disguise the hard core of its absolute dictatorship.  While the Soviet rulers never risked experimenting  with more than one candidate, the mullahs manipulate with multiple candidates making foreign observers forget that all candidates are hand-picked members of the same ruling elite. 

However, both the Soviets and the Tehran dictators have pursued the same strategic goal – to confuse and divide democratic states in assessing the real nature of their regimes. Both dictatorships were able to count on Western mentality, always exited to believe in superficial changes and to find hope in new faces. The classical game of doves and hawks, moderates and conservatives still seems to bring rich dividends to undemocratic regimes.  As one commentator observed, the expectation of a „moderate“  Iranian leader has beguiled every American president since the Iranian revolution started in 1979. 

I agree that there must have been outbursts of joy in Tehran, but mostly because people felt relieved by the end of the reign of president Ahmadinejad who was hated for his rigging of elections and brutal suppression of mass protests four years ago.

But I cannot agree with the exitement of those observers who see the victory of a „moderate“ as „bursting through in the first round despite predictions.“  Has anything really changed regarding the transparency and reliability of the Iranian electoral system?  On what reliable basis can one assume that the victory of Mr. Rohani came as a result of spontaneous expression of voters’ free will?  How can we be expected to believe that this time there was no rigging both in the number of participants as well as in the counting of votes? 

I think it is much more logical to assume that a „moderate“  candidate was selected to win by the supreme theocratic leadership.  They must be in a rather desperate situation as a result of their failed economy and Western sanctions that bite harder than ever.  A staged surprise victory of Mr. Rohani is bound to boost the mullahs’ legitimacy, to provide badly needed breathing room, to create conditions for loosening sanctions and to gain more time to complete their strategic goals. 

At the meantime, even hopeful optimists have trouble in proving the new president’s „moderate“ background. In fact, beginning from 1989, Mr. Rohan has served as the powerful secretary of his country’s Supreme National Security Council.  In this position, he led the bloody crushing of the 1999 student uprising.  He openly supports  Iran’s nuclear programm, has promised not to halt uranium enrichment and has evaded the crucial issue of Iran’s military support of the Syrian regime.  Promising in general terms a greater transparency, he revealed his (and his supreme leader’s ) biggest concern – to achieve an agreement with the West not to impose any new sanctions.  And then – to reduce the existing sanctions! 

It is as pragmatic as that!  It is not about internal reforms or more tolerance for the opposition. It is about saving the Tehran terrorist regime that has started to crumble under mounting international pressure.

The „elections“ in Iran have brought out into open the vulnerability of this dangerous and inhumane dictatorship.  There is now an opportunity to bring about real change.  Instead of suggesting ( like Mr. Tabrizi writes in the Euroobserver of June 18) to Baroness Ashton to  „take the opportunity to re-calibrate EU’s sanction policy“, offering „credible incentives to build confidence“, we need to open our eyes to reality.  Not only seeing that sanctions are really making an impact but also starting to see that there is a long-time powerful opposition, supported by more than 3000  parliamentarians all over the democratic world, that offers a democratic alternative to the aggressive clerical dictatorship which will never change its substance. For years, Western governments, pressured by the Tehran mullahs, have ignored and partially neutralized the National Council of Resistance – Iran (NCRI), which advocates for a non-nuclear, secular and peaceful Iran, which will provide for the rights of women as well as for minorities.  Lately, President Obama and some other heads of government are seriously considering supplying arms to Syrian rebels, despite the fact that some of them seem to be islamist extremists. On this background it is especially hypocritical to continue suspecting NCRI of extremism while still believing in the efficacy of building confidence with the professional terrorists that are clinging to power in Iran.

Regime change can be brought about by the Iranian people themselves, provided  the West keeps not only  up its pressure on the mullahs but also will extend political and moral support to their opponents.

 One of the students who was imprisoned and tortured as a result of Mr. Rohani’s crackdown in 1999, has concluded:

„If we are ever going to get freedom and democracy, we are not going to get them from Rohani“.