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June 25, 2013 11:08 am

Progress and Change in the Iranian Regime?

avatar by Blake Fleisher


The Islamic Republic of Iran had its 11th presidential election on January 14, 2013.  Hassan Rouhani won a landslide victory with 51% of the vote.  He is widely considered to be a “moderate” and a vocal critic of his predecessor Ahmadinejad. However, will Rouhani’s victory mark the beginning of progress and change in the Iranian regime or will it serve to preserve the dangerous status-quo?  Before attempting to answer this question, here is some more information about Rouhani.

Hassan Rouhani was born in 1948 in Sorkheh, Iran.  He grew up in a religious Shiite family and began religious studies early in his youth, studying under leading scholars of Islamic thought. Rouhani is a pragmatic cleric and began to study more modern subjects at the University of Tehran in 1969.  In the 1990’s he pursued his PhD in psychology at the University of Glasgow.  Besides from being Western educated, Rouhani is a polyglot, fluent in about six languages.  His family fought against the Shah and Rouhani joined the revolutionary forces as early as 1962, when he was first arrested.

A year after the Iranian Revolution of 1979, Rouhani served as a deputy commander in the Iran-Iraq war, a member of several councils and eventually became the Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces.  He declined an offer to become the Iranian Minister of Intelligence in 1989.  Rouhani later represented Khamenei at the Supreme National Security Council and then served as secretary of the council for 16 years.

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Rouhani is a smooth talker and uses much more cautious rhetoric than Ahmadinejad, hence he also served as a high-ranking diplomat.  For two years he was Iran’s top nuclear negotiator and later published National Security and Nuclear Diplomacy, a 2011 memoir on Iran’s nuclear program.

Dr. Rouhani’s campaign slogan was “Government of Prudence and Hope.”  The issues he targeted were the instability of the economy, the continuation of the nuclear program, more attention to women’s rights and increased diplomacy with the West.  He is well-liked by the Supreme Leader and had the support of several reformists.

Now, back to our original question: Will Rouhani’s victory mark the beginning of progress and change in the Iranian regime or will it preserve the dangerous status-quo?  Unfortunately, it will most likely ensure the latter and perhaps even give the Islamic republic greater power in the international arena.

Based on the Iranian system of government, the president functions as a puppet controlled by its master, Ayatollah Khamenei.  The 2009 elections were clearly rigged and Khamenei suffered grave consequences for it—his regime was nearly toppled.  Thus, this year he let the people choose a moderate, yet a moderate that he knew he could trust.  Khamenei knew his audience well and realized that he must present the puppet that the people want, yet he can still control.  It was a strategic move for him to avoid uprising and preserve his regime.  Rouhani is not even a true moderate.  During the Iranian student demonstrations in 1999, he called for the students guilty of sabotage to suffer the death sentence.

Rouhani’s victory also has the ability to lull the West into feeling more comfortable with Iran. Under Ahmadinejad, Iran was isolated in the international community.  His outrageous statements, denial of the holocaust and tyrannical rule made it difficult for many Western governments to work with him.  Rouhani though is a Western-educated diplomat and can manipulate the West into thinking that the regime is more moderate and should no longer suffer from harsh economic sanctions.  However, it is important to note that the major points of conflict with the United States and Iran will likely cease to change.  The main issues are Iran’s proxy war on Israel, and its nuclear weapons program. Both of these issues are certainly not going to change under Rouhani. Rouhani refers to Israel as “the great Zionist satan” and claims that sanctions against his country benefit Israel.  As for the nuclear program, he explicitly states that it will not be terminated. Rouhani stated, “First, America must not interfere in Iran domestic affairs based on the Algiers Accord.  They have to recognize our nuclear rights, put away bullying policies against Iran.” Rouhani’s position as the chief negotiator of the nuclear program demonstrates the importance of the program to him.  He has always been a strong supporter of it and his support for it is unlikely to change.

Hassan Rouhani’s victory in the Iranian presidential elections will not mark a change in the regime.  Khameini merely installed a Western-appearing puppet, who will continue to implement the same policies of the regime under the guise of reform.  There is only one way for change—through revolution.  Unfortunately, it may take time for this to come.

Blake Fleisher is president of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) CCAP supported group, University of Chicago Friends of Israel. This piece was originally published in the CAMERA on Campus Blog In Focus.  He is a rising third year linguistics major.

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