The election of Hassan Rouhani has split Iranian analysts into three groups: the overly enthusiastic, the destructively pessimistic and the cautiously optimistic. The enthusiasts and the pessimists both present potentially inaccurate analyses of Iran’s current situation, views that could ultimately lead to disappointment and lost opportunities. The clearest path to meaningful change is through cautious optimism.
The enthusiasts see the election itself as an achievement. They advise the West, the US government and the Islamic Republic’s opposition to reward Tehran with new nuclear deals, a temporary freezing of the human rights issue and a suspension of expectations for some time.
Then there are the pessimists, who see Rouhani’s election as a continuation of the status quo; having selected a president from Iran’s ruling group, every proposed change will have to get the supreme leader’s approval. The pessimists believe that though the president’s appearance, literature and tone may have changed, the presidency won’t allow Rouhani to solve many of the crises the Islamic Republic faces, and that his background doesn’t lend itself to trailblazing or being all that different from Iran’s ruling class.
But the third group, the cautiously optimistic, sees Rouhani’s election as a check on Iran’s destructive internal and international policies. This check is an important development, no doubt, but this group is careful not to portray Rouhani as something he is not, nor to admire him for work he hasn’t yet done. This cautious group even includes individuals who played a serious role in Rouhani’s June 14 presidential victory.
Many reformists and academic figures I’ve spoken to over the past two weeks share one sentiment: “Don’t get too excited by the election of Rouhani.” They are, however, optimistic that Rouhani is seriously committed and dedicated to change, and that his ambitious personality will push him toward success. They hope he will use his intelligence, background and experience to project the image of a competent and effective president.
The overly enthusiastic individuals pushing for serious and immediate Western policy changes, simply because of Rouhani’s election, are moving in a direction many pro-democracy supporters — both inside and outside the country, including those hoping for Rouhani to succeed — find terrifying. They worry that sudden changes — even in tone and language — might cripple Rouhani and his policies; an outright removal of the dangers facing Iran could lead him to disregard the serious and practical efforts required from Tehran to mend relations with the international community, the region and its people.
The enthusiasts forget that despite Rouhani’s rare shift — considering his background and historical partisan affiliations – toward the reformists and those pushing for change in Iran, he never went beyond generalities. During his campaign, Rouhani made maximum use of his anonymity among the public. Despite enormous curiosity and eagerness about the individuals he intends to appoint to his administration and about the details of his campaign promise to improve civil and political liberties, he either kept silent or stayed away from specifics. This may work during an election campaign in Iran, where populism can offer a candidate without a proven track record a chance at success, particularly if he leans toward a widely popular sentiment. But now that Rouhani is selecting his cabinet, building his management team and preparing for his inauguration, he must know that the Iranian people — and those keeping an eye on developments in Iran — are waiting to see him take practical and meaningful steps.
Being cautious about Rouhani’s actions will more clearly define the present climate both inside and outside Iran. It will highlight the public disappointment and the waning trust and patience, clarifying for him that immediate and serious action is needed, not just dime-a-dozen sermons. Caution will draw Rouhani out of his victory bubble and generate sufficient domestic and international pressure to effect changes in tune with the demands of the Iranian people and the international community.
As many activists inside Iran have told me, social and political pressure on Rouhani can marginalize the extremists. Silence and the celebration of Rouhani’s very election as president can actually leave him powerless to create change. With Rouhani’s election alone, Iran’s power centers have not yet lost their power; they’re just watching the game from the sidelines, if not from the center, for now. If the supporters of change grow complacent, it won’t be hard for the conservatives to reclaim their stranglehold on power.
But a pessimistic approach can also overlook the very real opportunities Rouhani’s election can create for internal and international changes. Yes, Rouhani hasn’t done anything yet. It’s not clear what path he will take for Iran. But his agenda received 18 million votes from people demanding a lifting of the sanctions regime, a resolution to Iran’s nuclear crisis and respect for their civil, political and citizen rights. Rouhani has yet to act, but as one pro-democracy academic in Tehran told me, “He hasn’t disappointed his voters yet, either.” Ignoring the power of public opinion and international civil society in Iran can impede the serious prospect for change.
Optimism, moderated by serious caution, could be a constructive approach to shaping realistic policy and a series of demand-based campaigns for these extremely ambiguous and un-transparent times. Stating demands to Rouhani both domestically and internationally and showing that with every practical step from Tehran, the Iranian and international communities — including civil society — will also take a step forward, can effect meaningful change. More than anyone, it’s Rouhani who must build trust, take positive steps and show that he is an ambassador of reform, rationality and moderation.
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