Commentary

Iran: Change We Can Believe In?

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

Iran’s domestic and foreign policies seem to be undergoing important changes. On the domestic front, President Hassan Rouhani has stepped up a reform of fuel subsidies, which in the past has been a catalyst for major protests. Internationally, Rouhani and other Iranian moderates have advocated a less isolationist approach compared to his predecessor. That, however, does not mean that Iran is ready to put aside its historic objectives and alliances, nor is the West ready to put its guard down.

Commenting on recent changes in the domestic arena in an op-ed written last week for Asharq Alawsat, Ali Ibrahim expresses surprise at the rather subdued response to the announced fuel price hikes: “Contrary to what happened in previous years, fuel price hikes — or more accurately, the partial reduction of fuel subsidies — announced by the Iranian government a few days ago passed without major protests or palpable social unrest. This means that the general public in Iran have understood and accepted this step, despite its impact on their quality of life. The calm understanding of this can likely be attributed to two things. First, the new government under President Hassan Rouhani entered office with a popular mandate, with Iranians hoping for policy change. Second, Iran’s media paved the way for this step by explaining that reforming the subsidy system is an inescapable necessity in order to achieve true development in the future.”

Changes, at least of tone, in the international arena have been even more pronounced. First, there is the president himself, Mr. Rouhani who according to statements published by Tehran Times, argues against a confrontational path vis-à-vis the international community: “Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has said confrontation with the world will not bring the country success and thus his government has adopted a constructive approach toward the world....He went on to say that the government is serious about following a moderate approach and avoiding extremism, and underlined that extremism has always taken a toll on the Iranian nation over the past few decades....Rouhani described the sanctions imposed on the country as a 'great injustice,' but noted that there are certain groups and people who are happy about the sanctions.”

Then there came a statement by Mr. Rafsanjani, one of Iran’s foremost political figures, who called for a cooperative relationship with Saudi Arabia, Iran’s perennial regional competitor. That advice, notes Arab News’ Abdul Rahman Al Rashid, ought to be heeded by the rest of the Iranian leadership: “Since Hassan Rowhani’s election as the president, Rafsanjani has become more comfortable in propagating his moderate views. Only last week, he called for a real cooperation with Saudi Arabia to end regional tensions. Considering the region’s current situation, this advice holds great importance. Reconciliation is very important for the inhabitants of this volatile region continuously living under perpetual fears of wars and political violence....The Iranian leadership can ignore Rafsanjani’s calls and miss out on the opportunity. A day will come, however, and the people will be fed up with the life of misery and military adventures especially when the only output of these games is to build personal glories for some leaders.”

Iran’s choices have an impact that go beyond the region and may have a direct bearing on how President Barack Obama’s legacy in international affairs will be perceived. For example, Joyce Karam opines in an article for Al Arabiya that: “With an open conflict in Syria, a collapsing peace process, uncertainty in Egypt and a more defiant Russia on the global stage, it is increasingly looking likely that the Iranian nuclear issue will define the Barack Obama legacy in foreign policy....The current status quo in the Middle East, with the exception of the Iranian nuclear talks, has put U.S. foreign policy on a perilous path, with little to no hope left for diplomatic breakthroughs....A nuclear deal with Iran will carry strategic implications for the Middle East in reshuffling the balance of power with sanctions eased, and on Iran’s own relations with the United States and the West.”

That, warns Al Jazeera’s Vartan Oskanian, doesn’t mean that U.S. leaders should let their guard down, especially when it comes to the issue of Iran’s nuclear program: “The signs and posturing from all sides indicate that the U.S. and Iran are serious, genuine and committed to reaching an agreement. The negotiations are being conducted quietly, and between rounds, the sides are displaying restraint and expressing cautious optimism....We have reached a point on the Iran nuclear issue that it doesn't really matter whether Iran had or still has intentions to develop a nuclear weapon. What the U.S. and the international community need to do is to borrow a page out of the Ronald Reagan notebook and apply the "trust but verify" dictate. The West's judgment about Iran's motives and actions should not be distorted by Iranian pride. We can only understand Iran's real intentions by engaging Iranians — not cornering them.”

Nor is Iran likely to abandon its traditional alliances with Syria and Hezbollah, both of which enable the Iranian leadership to exert influence in the region: “One of the most powerful and extensive alliances in the Middle East, which is also known as the resistance and resilience bloc between Hezbollah, Iran, and Syria is a result of almost three decades of strategic, geopolitical, and economic investment orchestrated and guided primarily by the Islamic Republic (and to be more specific by Iran’s supreme leader, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Quds forces, and its intelligence ministry, Etela’at). Any kind of military, political, advisory, and economic involvement in Syria, as well as any Hezbollah or Iranian backing of Assad is aimed at retaining this extensive and lengthy strategic investment. Maintaining this robust resistance and resilience bloc exceeds the interests of a single player.”


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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.