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Iran: from pariah to partner

Normalization abroad and reconciliation at home

Published: Updated:
Mehrdad Khonsari
Mehrdad Khonsari

Almost three and half decades after the establishment of the Islamic Republic in Iran, the country has faced numerous crisis which have left a heavy toll on the nation: more than half a million people dead, more than a million disabled, many millions homeless and unemployed facing run away inflation while isolated and shunned by the international community.

It appears that the latest crisis over Iran’s nuclear policy which have led to the imposition of crippling sanctions has finally convinced the Islamic leadership to change direction fearing that uncontrollable economic mayhem would be a prelude to social disorder which, in turn, will result in the kind of political turmoil that could very well spell the end of the Islamic Republic.

The election of Hassan Rowhani with the tacit approval of the Supreme Leader has provided an opportunity for avoiding conflict and violence. In an atmosphere filled with skepticism and short on trust, the new government if believed on face value, offers a way forward that could lead to some kind of a non-violent solution to Iran’s various internal and external problems.

Tehran’s intentions

Deciphering true intentions in Iran at this time is truly a complicated feat.

Today, the Islamic Republic, with its back against wall, isolated abroad and facing unprecedented economic pressures and a disgruntled public at home, has little choice but to confront these challenges head on. At the same time, the hard-core ‘insiders’ within the regime realize only too well that reaching a compromise with any of their adversaries could lead to a slippery road at the end of which their continued monopoly and domination of power may be wrested away from them.

The Islamic leadership understands very well that a repressive political system beset by a pressured economy plagued by mismanagement, corruption and a vast array of economic sanctions, which have over time crippled growth resulting in unprecedented unemployment and inflation, could easily lead to their demise. For the time being, the regime’s decided game plan is to ‘behave’ and move forward cautiously and seem genuine in wanting to address outstanding issues.

The departure of Ahmadinejad and the election of Hassan Rowhani has awarded an opportunity for a new process, which could paradoxically alter the entire dynamics of the Iranian equation for all parties concerned:

For the international community and in particular the state of Israel which uniquely fears the ‘existential threat’ of the regime’s nuclear ambitions, Rowhani and the direction of his policies which have received the tacit support of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, present an opportunity for reaching a compromise following almost 10 years of tortuous jousting. Such a compromise would remove the prospect of another unwanted Middle Eastern conflict at a time when the United States and NATO are entering the final phases of their military withdrawal from Afghanistan, with the United States having already left the scene in Iraq.

For the suffering people of Iran, the consummation of some kind of a deal with the ‘5+1’ could mean the start of a process for removing economic sanctions thus paving the way for Iran’s reintegration into the world economy with all its ensuing benefits. Prospects of economic recovery in addition to Rowhani’s promises for a more open society have already managed to raise hopes and expectations amongst the general population.

Failure on the part of Rowhani to deliver on these promises could lead to a quick loss of public confidence, adding to greater domestic political volatility and potential instability.

Finally, the promise of a more measured and less belligerent foreign policy outlook and as promised, a more open and vibrant civil society could offer the possibility of a reasonable compromise to all progressive political opponents of the regime, allowing them to have some kind of an input in the reconstruction and development of their country’s political and economic structures through a process of ‘national reconciliation.’

For such a scenario to unfold, avoiding the trepidations of a deceptive mirage, there are huge and ostensibly insurmountable impediments that will need to be overcome.

If, however, the Rowhani administration’s intentions are to be believed on face value, then it has to be said that at no time in the past 35 years, have opportunities been so ripe for defusing existing tensions and addressing animosities and making a ‘national’ effort - for moving forward in a practical manner for dealing with the current emergency facing the nation.

Realistic expectations

The presumption has always been that Iran has been a rational actor, capable of being both pragmatic and flexible, especially in times of crisis. The most vivid example of this tendency was demonstrated in the summer of 1988, when faced with defeat and humiliation in the war with Iraq, the late Ayatollah Khomeini finally relented by accepting a U.N. Security Council resolution (598) adopted almost a year before calling for an immediate cease-fire and an end to all hostilities.

The crisis before the Iranian leadership today – i.e. the prospects of a foreign military confrontation that they cannot win or an economic meltdown with devastating internal consequence which they cannot avert – is as great a challenge to the survival of the Islamic regime as the prospects of an Iraqi military victory in 1988. Hence, the decision by the Supreme Leader to change direction and align himself with the majority of Iranians who voted for Rowhani and his tacit support of the new government’s agenda for arriving at some sort of a compromise with the ‘5+1’ over the nuclear issue.

Khamenei’s consent that Iran should resume the nuclear talks with a view of arriving at an acceptable compromise to facilitate the removal of crippling economic sanctions – a move he termed as ‘Narmesh Ghahremananeh’, loosely interpreted to mean ‘Heroic exercise in diplomacy’ – signaled nothing less than the language which Ayatollah Khomeini has used when he had compared his acceptance of UNSCR 598 in 1988 as tantamount to ‘drinking a jug of poison.’ It thus follows that to ensure the survival of his regime, Khamenei, like his mentor, is willing to do all that is required, even at the cost of alienating many of his close hardline collaborators who form the core of his personal support and constituency.

What the Iranian leadership has displayed most noticeably since the inauguration of the new president is the extent of their pragmatism rather than anything else. They have opted for a strategy to diffuse tension with the outside world and then, albeit to a much lesser extent, to move in the same direction with their own people.

Although, the negotiations are expected to last for some months, so far the stage for reaching an acceptable compromise, the contours of which have been known for sometime, have skillfully been put into place (e.g. end to 20% enrichment but acceptance that Iran could produce low enriched uranium on Iranian soil in exchange for open cooperation with the IAEA as well as adherence to the provisions of the ‘Additional Protocol’, etc.). Moreover, Rowhani’s visit to the United Nations in September resulting in the first direct encounter in almost 35 years between an Iranian Foreign Minister and his American counterpart that was capped with his own 15-minute telephone conversation with President Obama and later with other ‘5+1’ leaders has already altered the scenario.

Despite certain protestations and agitations from hardline anti-American circles inside Iran, there is little doubt that for the time being, the new government will continue having the pivotal support and backing of Ayatollah Khamenei for the kind of negotiations that might ultimately result in the gradual removal of all external economic pressures from Iran.

Where Khamenei is likely to side with Rowhani’s current critics will be over allowing Rowhani to carry out the implementation of the kind of pledges he has made to the Iranian people over matters pertaining to internal reforms such as the releasing of political prisoners including Mir Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karubi who have been held under house arrest for more than a 1000 days, respect for freedom of thought, assembly and speech (all guaranteed under Chapter 3 of the Islamic Constitution) and other such issues.


The Challenges ahead

What the Rowhani government has generally achieved in its first ‘100 days’ is important. Not only has there been a positive change in Iran’s outward demeanor, but also his promises for greater openness within Iran has raised hopes and changed the general atmospherics of the country. But to sustain the current initiative and move forward towards opportunities for economic recovery along with Iran’s full reintegration into the international community, the Rowhani government needs new political partners to augment his base and overcome opposition from radical hardline constituencies who have been the sole beneficiaries of the country’s estrangement with the majority of its own people as well as the outside world.

If skeptics who assert that ‘the new government’s game’ is no more than a charade, dressed in ‘Sheep’s Clothing’ with the single objective of ‘fooling’ the international community, are to be proven wrong, then there is a need for firm guarantees ensuring that any agreement made with the ‘5+1’ should never be violated in any form or shape once the crippling economic sanctions have been eased.

There is no doubt that a more open and vibrant political atmosphere in Iran, as promised by Rowhani himself, could be the best guarantor for such an undertaking.

By honoring the wishes of the 18 million Iranians who voted for change, and cognizant of the internal inter-harmony that needs to be in place between civil society, the religious establishment and the armed forces (especially the Revolutionary Guards)’, Rowhani must use the opportunity that has availed itself for promoting new priorities on the basis of a new re-alignment of political forces – encompassing his constituency, reform minded politicians and technocrats committed to a reconstructed Iran playing its rightful role on the international stage.

It is here, that the Iranian diaspora, so far excluded from any participation in the construction of the country, can also play an important role, much like the Jewish diaspora (and others like the Armenian and Lebanese) in providing a whole array of mutually beneficial services that is desperately needed to enhance and retain the security and prosperity of their ancestral homeland (e.g. management, financial investments, lobbying and the like).

In the absence of such a political re-alignment that can today be achieved through a process of ‘national reconciliation’, the Rowhani government and its enunciated policies – both foreign and domestic – will always remain prey to the whims of powerful hardline forces unwilling to give up their influence or other ill-gotten gains.

As for the Iranian Supreme Leader, for the first time since his accession to the leadership of the Islamic Republic, he is today in a position where he can conceivably play the role of ‘arbiter’ which his predecessor, Ayatollah Khomeini had so skillfully carried out during the first decade of the new republic.

In the current political atmosphere, the Supreme Leader can, instead of siding with those whose damaging agendas have made the survival of his regime vulnerable to external military confrontation and internal social and economic chaos at the same time, choose to use his position in supporting elements who wish to remove all such threats.

In the course of any move towards ‘national reconciliation,’ instead of being constantly threatened or challenged, he can have the option of assuming a role much like that of General Franco in Spain, in laying the framework of a future oriented progressive and democratic society that is respectful of the country’s religious traditions and historic legacy.

While such a process may fall short of what many progressive democrats might have wished for in the shorter term, given the prospect of moving towards their ultimate goal in a peaceful and gradual manner, they too could be persuaded to embrace a proposition that can potentially be nothing short of a ‘win-win’ situation for a majority of Iranians.

The alternative scenario

The retention of power by the Islamic leadership in the course of the past 34 years has been anything but smooth. Yet the control of the ruling establishment over the State has been such that Iranian society has never been subjected to the kind of domestic violence and insecurity the likes of which are daily occurrences in places like neighboring Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Today the Islamic Republic of Iran has reached a historic cross road because its originally perceived characterization as a powerful manifestation of resurgent fundamentalist Islam boosted by a fervent belief in the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini and his championing of a popular revolution that overthrew the Shah are no longer relevant and thus in need of a new definition. This is due to the fact that, rhetoric aside, none of those factors any longer inspire, motivate or mobilize either the elite who govern the system (whose main preoccupation is to retain power and its perks) nor the general population at large (who are desperate for their livelihood and no longer think of those issues).

Devoid of its previous credentials, Iran is today governed like any other authoritarian state. Its administration is run in a ‘secular’ fashion and its Supreme Leader is obeyed not because he is credited with any kind of legitimacy derived from the almighty, but simply like most other dictators, out of fear. As such, Iran is today subject to the kind of societal vulnerabilities which have led to the demise of much more consolidated dictatorships such as the Soviet Union and the like.

In view of circumstances which have led to the election of Hassan Rowhani, the challenge before the Islamic leadership at present is whether to use present opportunities to chart a new course in line with domestic and foreign expectations or to simply continue as before, albeit with artificial flexibility and disingenuous promises – especially with regards to people inside the country.

While any move in the direction of ‘national reconciliation’ may appear naïve and somewhat wishful, there is no question that by not honoring the pledges he has made to the Iranian people, Hassan Rowhani and the entire Islamic leadership will subject the country to enormous risks at the end of which not just the day to day welfare of the Iranian people but the territorial integrity of the country may become irreversibly compromised.

Any thought that by reaching a compromise with the ‘5+1’, the regime can be in a position whereby they do not need to press ahead with internal reforms, is also a non-starter given that without access to nuclear weapons which would have been the regime’s ultimate guarantee for survival, they are like a ‘computer without anti-virus protection’ which can consequently be subjected to all kinds of potential pressures – both foreign and domestic - leading to their eventual downfall.

Thus, it is important bearing in mind that outstanding issues between Iran, the region and the international community are many and that without a supporting population at home the leadership can neither be trusted to remain compliant to any commitment that it should make nor capable of fending mounting pressures as demands from various other sources converge to close them off.

Window of opportunity not open-ended


The window for reaching a peaceful solution to Iran’s current crisis is not open-ended. In the case of the ‘5+1’, it was a pre-requisite that the Iranian regime should move first.

In the case of opening up the internal situation, Rowhani’s campaign promises have today been augmented by an appeal to the Iranian people from a host of prominent Iranians both at home and abroad for embracing the concept of ‘national reconciliation’ as a way forward. There is no question that the continuation of the status quo ante will simply delay the eventual outcome universally sought by the overwhelming majority of Iranians. It could, however, needlessly subject the country to much greater damage, suffering and humiliation.

It is thus crucial that this historic moment for Iran along with its significant implications for the Middle East and beyond should be ceased and prevented from falling prey to short sighted designs and failed experiences that can never endure in the longer term.

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Dr. Mehrdad Khonsari, a former Iranian diplomat is Secretary General of ‘Green Wave.’