While the government of President Hassan Rowhani is attempting to project a moderate image to Western countries in order to urge the international community to ease some of the political and economic sanctions on Tehran, the actual socio-political and socio-religious status of the nation seems to be different domestically from the projected moderate image.
One of the fundamental reasons behind the Rowhani administration’s efforts to soften its tone has been to address its crumbling economy, which is isolating Tehran and reducing Iranian influence in the region, effectively endangering the ruling clerics and the Ayatollahs’ hold on power within the nation.
Since Rowhani came to power, the administration seems to have been successful in luring back some Western oil groups. Rowhani’s government has been attempting to offer more lucrative contracts to Western and international oil companies to encourage investment throughout Iran cities. Tehran’s oil industry was crippled in the last few years due to the severe economic sanctions aimed at containing Tehran for its nuclear program.
An adviser to Iran’s oil minister, Mehdi Hosseini, was quoted in the Financial Times as saying that the Iranian government is developing a “win-win” form of contract, which can benefit leading companies “whether American or European.” The Iranian government is trying, according to Hosseini, to change the current system of “buyback” contracts, which currently do not permit foreign companies to book reserves or take equity stakes in Iranian oil, gas, or other projects. This will mark a considerable shift in the Iranian oil industry, previously seen as antagonist to foreign investment and foreign ownership of its oil and gas fields.
In addition, according to International Energy Agency (IEA) reports, Iran has already increased its oil exports by 180,000 barrels per day in September, compared to the previous year. This is equivalent to a 26 percent increase. Reports also indicate that crude oil prices will decrease by 10 percent with the Iranian government reintroducing its oil and gas wealth to Western investments, including those from the United States.
Politically and ideologically moderate?
The numbers, and several indications, shows that the Iranian government has been successful in achieving its objectives by projecting a semblance of moderation to the West by softening their tone on the international stage, trying to rebuild its crippled economy by luring Western companies - including American oil companies - to invest in various cities of Iran.
The Iranian government has been successful in achieving its objectives by projecting a semblance of moderation to the West by softening their tone on the international stageMajid Rafizadeh
While Rowhani’s government is rebuilding Tehran’s economy and attempting to buy the favor of the West and international community through projecting himself as a moderate and reformer, domestic political suppression has increased in various parts of Iran, with Iranian influence and meddling in regional issues has swelled as well.
This week, Iran’s press watchdog has imposed a ban on a major reformist newspaper Bahar, merely because it published an article that was viewed as raising questions on Shi’ite Islam beliefs. The Bahar newspaper published an op-ed article in which the author casted doubts that the Prophet Mohammad had appointed a successor (in Ali). The newspaper was banned because this statement contradicts the beliefs of Shia Muslims, and Iran’s ruling clerics and Ayatollahs.
Additionally, Iranian authorities executed 16 Sunni insurgents on Saturday. Reportedly, these executions were conducted as retaliation, for an attack that took place a day earlier by other groups.
Furthermore, despite Rowhani’s moderate image and the Obama administration’s outreach to Iran, religious persecution of minorities- particularly Sunni Muslims and Christians- is continuing. According to a Christian advocacy group and international news outlets, a court in Iran recently sentenced four Christian men to 80 lashes each for drinking wine during a communion ceremony. This sentencing is part of the government crackdown on so-called “house churches.” These makeshift churches are unofficial locations in which Christians in Iran meet in order to practice their faith while trying not be recognized, detected, and persecuted. Several other political and human rights activists have also been sentenced to jail in the last few weeks.
Opposite political correlation: politics and economy
As Rowhani’s government has put forth all its efforts to project an image of moderation to the West in an attempt to bring foreign investments for its oil and gas reserves, there has been an increasing opposite correlation between Iran’s moderate image and its domestic and regional meddling.
The more Iran’s economy gets on the track, and the more Western oil companies lured to invest in Iran, the more the government and the hardliners will move to increase their campaigns to crackdown on ordinary people and oppositional groups.
As the Iranian government becomes more economically and politically confident in its power and wealth, its position in comparison to other groups inside the country is strengthened, removing the government’s incentive to compromise and respect rule of law.
This analogy is also accurate when it comes to Tehran’s foreign policies in the region as well. As the Iranian government rebuilds its economy, and becomes further economically and politically reassured, the more they will meddle in the affairs of other regional countries. This would make the Iranian government capable of more robustly funding their proxies in the region, supporting Assad’s regime financially, and through a militarily, intelligence, and advisory role, effectively increasing its influence throughout the region.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is an Iranian-American scholar, author and U.S. foreign policy specialist. Rafizadeh is the president of the International American Council. He serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University and Harvard International Relations Council. He is a member of the Gulf 2000 Project at Columbia University, School of International and Public Affairs. Previously he served as ambassador to the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC.