What is striking about traveling to Iran these days, less than a couple of months since the inauguration President Hassan Rouhani, is how little seems to have changed since the latter years of the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was perhaps the most destructive force in Iranian politics in a generation, reviled in the West for his anti-Semitic remarks and at home for his vainglory and destruction of the nation’s economy.
A little below the surface, of course, there are differences, from the less conspicuous presence of the gasht-e-ershad, the morality police, to a gradual easing of some social restrictions. But wariness remains, as if the political clouds and the rumble of thunder auguring calamity are permanent fixtures in the Iranian sky — winds of change, stiff breezes really, notwithstanding.
There is little of the laughter and joy and celebration that the world witnessed when Rouhani defeated the favorites of the Islamic system in the presidential election this summer; instead, there are questions. Can he, or will he be allowed to, deliver on his campaign promises? Can he fix the economy without a rapid rapprochement with the West? Is the West even interested in engagement, or would it prefer to bring Persia to its knees, for the second time in a hundred years?
Rouhani campaigned, much like his American counterpart five years ago, on a platform of hope and change. But few Iranians are naïve enough to believe that change will be easy, not in the Islamic Republic, where bureaucratic entropy butts heads with a political system seemingly designed to confound not just foreigners but any attempts at real reform.
But Iranians remain guardedly hopeful, and so should we who do not have to live under the strictest sanctions regime imposed on Iran since the birth of the Islamic republic, or with an economy in tatters, sky-high unemployment and severely restricted civil liberties. Hopeful that what they — and we — are witnessing, from Rouhani’s speeches challenging the status quo, to his cabinet members’ breaking of taboos, to the apparent and sudden willingness of the regime to engage in reasonable behavior, is not a chimera but a sign that the Islamic Revolution has finally grown up.
In Rouhani many Iranians see a man they need not revere, but rather a man they must support because he echoes the desires of the people. That he enjoys, as he has declared and as his top advisers affirmed to me in his office in Tehran, the full support of the one center of power — the supreme leadership — that could silence that voice, is apparent to any thinking Iranian. The only caveat is that the Rouhani administration believes that the time for comprehensive engagement with the West, and for closing the wounds of hostility, is limited — and that it is now.
It is tempting to believe that Iran’s sudden openness to compromise on its nuclear program, its easing of social restrictions, and even its surprising openness to sitting down with the Great Satan is due solely to escalating pressure and threats. But the Obama administration should be mindful that even if that were true a continuation of a strict policy toward Iran could derail a negotiated settlement on the nuclear issue but also the Rouhani presidency.
The wolves in Tehran may have retreated into their dens, but they remain ready to pounce at Rouhani’s first misstep. As the president intimated recently, in essence there is only one thing he now requires for an eventual conclusion to negotiations over the scope of Iran’s nuclear program — and that is “respect” from the West.
Of course to Iran respect is not just abandoning the “language of threats,” as he said at his inauguration, but a prerequisite for fulfilling the hopes of his people and enshrining the change he has promised. What respect means in relation to Iran’s “rights” is what will be on the table at the next negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 countries: the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, plus Germany.
For almost 35 years, rhetoric from the United States and Iran has played a far too important role in determining relations between them, to the detriment of their people. It is unnecessary, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel worries, for President Obama or any other leader for that matter, to believe Rouhani’s words. It is unnecessary for any Western leader to personally like Rouhani, or to like the Islamic republic’s political ideology. But during a week when two presidents who both embraced hope and change as candidates will cross paths (if not shake hands) at the United Nations, it would surely be a tragedy for one president who has already seen some of his own hopes evaporate to not give the other, and his people, at least a chance to keep theirs alive. Obama has nothing to lose, really, except hope itself.
Source: NY Times
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