June 23, 2013

FAIR TO MIDDLIN':

Iran's Man in the Middle (Haleh Esfandiari, 6/22/13, NY Review of Books)

[R]ouhani did not run his campaign as an insider. On many issues, including political freedoms, the growing presence of government informants among student and civil society associations, Iran's international relations and its nuclear negotiations with the West, and the state of the economy, he used language and adopted a posture at odds with those of the ruling conservatives and, indirectly, of the supreme leader. While regime conservatives paint a rosy picture of Iran's international standing, Rouhani spoke during the campaign of the "clouded visage" of Iran in the world. Conservatives describe Iran as the freest country in the world, but Rouhani spoke of the "the bowed silhouette" of freedom in the country, and of the need to free political prisoners. Both the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation, an Iranian human rights group in Washington, DC, and the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran estimate the number of political prisoners at any one time at around five hundred, although many hundreds more pass through the prison system for short periods of incarceration. Rouhani also promised to establish a ministry for women's affairs, to pay attention to women's rights, and to remove restrictions on women's access to higher education imposed by the outgoing government. He also spoke vaguely of a "charter of rights" for all citizens.

Regime hardliners have continued to attack their reformist counterparts as "seditionists," while Rouhani, both during his campaign and in his first press conference after his victory, stressed the need for national reconciliation. He will be the president of all the Iranian people, he said.

Rouhani also embraced and won the endorsement of two former presidents, Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami. This was significant because both men are identified with the reformist endeavor and have been the target of vicious attacks by the hardliners. Rafsanjani, a pragmatist and ultimate insider (and president in 1989-1997), has been marginalized in recent years due to his centrist policies; and the Council of Guardians, which rules on the qualifications of candidates for the office of president, vetoed his candidacy on the lame excuse that, at age seventy-eight, he was too old to spend more than a few hours a day tending to the presidency. Khatami (president in 1997-2005) ushered in an unprecedented period of expanded freedoms, only to be frustrated by a right-wing backlash.

On the nuclear issue, Rouhani has not strayed far from the official Iranian position--that Iran has a right to enrich nuclear fuel and to the full nuclear cycle, even though it has no intention of weaponizing--but his tone has been far more conciliatory. He has spoken proudly of his success, as Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, negotiating compromise agreements with the Europeans in 2003 and 2005. Former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw recalled that in the 2003 negotiations, Rouhani broke a deadlock by working the phones with Iran's president and supreme leader, securing the flexibility to reach an agreement. In brief, he has a track record for looking for compromise and the middle ground, and he is offering greater transparency on Iran's nuclear program. [...]

The economy is in dire straits. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad squandered a huge influx of oil revenues on pet populist projects and liberal handouts, without generating much employment or investment in productive industry. Under the impact of sanctions, the Iranian currency has lost more than half its value against the US dollar. Iranian oil exports have been halved. Iran's once substantial foreign exchange reserves have shrunk. Iranian banks have been virtually squeezed out of international transactions, and Iranian industries are having difficulty securing spare parts and raw materials.

Rouhani understands what needs to be done to reset the economy on a more sensible course, but he is caught on the horns of a dilemma. He cannot resolve Iran's economic problems without a significant easing of banking and other Western-imposed sanctions. At the same time, the US insists on maintaining sanctions until Iran's nuclear posture changes; and Rouhani may not be able to persuade Iran's leader to be more flexible on the nuclear issue unless sanctions are eased.

However, Rouhani's election has aroused hopes and a sense of movement and possibilities--and pressure from the left to move quickly on multiple issues. Several senior clerics, congratulating Rouhani on his election, have urged him to address the problems of unemployment, inflation, moral decline, political division, and restrictions on political freedoms. 
Posted by at June 23, 2013 8:08 AM
  
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