Today, the Iranian people have two governments: one that represents an open and conciliatory face to the outside world and the other that remains uncompromising and unwilling to break from the status quo. The West is eager to find a solution to the nuclear crisis, and Tehran is aware that it stands to gain a lot by introducing reforms, but not necessarily in the interests of ordinary Iranians. While the message of the Islamic Republic may have changed, the medium is still the same.
The basic social restrictions for which the Islamic Republic is renowned have not been loosened. It is true that during the weeks following the election of President Hassan Rowhani a number of promising steps were taken such as the release of eleven high profile political prisoners, including human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh and reformist politician Mohsen Aminzadeh. And it is also true that the new president has said he wants to work for a more moderate and just society. But these gestures were vital in order to lay the ground work for amending ties with the U.S. in the weeks leading up to the U.N. General Assembly. The openness shown by President Rowhani and Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif has been an undeniable success. For the first time since the Islamic Revolution, an Iranian leader has spoken to a U.S. president and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry says the window for nuclear diplomany is “cracking open”. As a result of these overtures, there is talk of resuming flights between the U.S. and Tehran and other possibilities.
Minimal impact on Iranians
Yet back home, the effect of Iran’s diplomatic breakthrough is having minimal impact on the lives of Iranians. Over 800 political prisoners still remain behind bars and since the presidential election, at least 150 people have been executed and the numbers are rising. During Friday prayers, crowds are still encouraged to chant “Death to America” and social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, popular with many of Iran’s top officials, are still blocked to the general public. Prominent film maker Mohammad Rasoulof was recently barred from travelling to Germany to attend an award ceremony. And in late September, while President Rowhani joked about access to satellite television, hundreds of satellite dishes were destroyed in the city of Shiraz by members of the Revolutionary Guards. There was also intense speculation that the leaders of the Green Movement, Mir Hussein Moussavi, his wife, Zahra Rahnavard and Mehdi Karroubi would be released from house arrest, but Iran’s judiciary has said for now they will not be pardoned.
In the meantime priority No. 1 for the U.S. and its allies is to gain assurances that Tehran will suspend uranium enrichment and ship part of its stockpile abroad. Something that according to Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi is unlikely to happen, as it constitutes a “red line” for Iran. Nevertheless, Tehran’s objective is to see the removal of punitive sanctions, especially those affecting the country’s banking and energy sectors. To do this it has to allay the fears of the international community and offer piece meal compromises, which will help avert economic stagnation and ease the country’s status as an international pariah. If this can be achieved within the confines of the nuclear issue, then it will stick to this policy. The regime is fully aware that is the only issue that keeps western leaders up at night.
The Supreme Leader, the clerical elite, the Revolutionary Guards and other groups are heavily invested in the future of the Islamic Republic. Demonstrative change in the country is something the Supreme Leader and his supporters would not countenance. Thus President Rowhani may be lauded for his positive rhetoric, but he is in no position to introduce a Persian-style Glasnost. For the moment, the social restrictions and limitations that affect Iranian citizens will remain in place, with mild and superficial changes taking place to keep international scrutiny at bay. Unfortunately the optimism that has characterised U.S.-Iranian relations during these past weeks may diminish as Iran’s governing bodies jostle for control over the nuclear issue, security interests and the economy. And the result could be both countries end up back from where they started.
Emily Boutler is based in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and works as a columnist for the Dutch business magazine "The International Correspondent" and is also a non-resident associate at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA).