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Rouhani’s Promising First Speech as President-Elect

iran election cheering

Will Rouhani justify the hopes for change of this young Iranian woman? (Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images)

Pres.-elect Hassan Rouhani gave his first speech in that capacity and it was, like his own election, a stunner.  Stunningly moderate.  Compared to the past eight years it was like standing in a blazing desert as a monsoon rain washed overhead.  The new leader hit all the right notes and offered Iranians an upbeat and positive message.  Given the dreariness of the last president’s reign and the economic stagnation brought on in part by western sanctions, this is a speech that Iranians received like a breath of fresh air.

As Al-Monitor pointed out in its coverage, Rouhani used the word “moderate” no less than 15 times in the speech, marking a studied contrast to the outgoing regime of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, known for its wild-eyed extremism.  As many have said about Rouhani, and as we’ve experienced with the wonderful promises offered by Barack Obama, they both appear to talk a good game.  We’ll see whether Rouhani has the capacity and vision to implement the reforms he alluded to.

First, he embraced dialogue with the west.  Not out of weakness as Bibi and the U.S. neocons believe, but rather out of an inclination to talk rather than threaten.  In terms of domestic affairs, Rouhani clearly embraced the idea that his election marks a break with the past.  He endorsed the need for change by noting the Arab leaders who were toppled by the Arab Spring revolts because they refused to read the handwriting on the wall.

The newly elected leader also surprisingly said that Iran should not have sacred cows in its relations with foreign states.  That includes Syria:

…Iran should not hesitate to criticize the Syrian government for some of its actions in its war against rebels seeking to oust it. While Iranian officials have staunchly defended Iran’s support for President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, Mr. Rouhani warned against a double standard in international affairs.

“We should not describe as oppressive brutal actions in an enemy country while refraining from calling the same actions oppressive if they take place in a friendly country,” he said. “Brutality must be called brutality.”

It’s far too early to tell whether this is a new stance toward Syria or whether it will translate into increasing Iranian flexibility in resolving the Syrian crisis, but these words are stunningly reasonable and pragmatic compared to past government policy.

Most importantly for the average Iranian, Rouhani called for a new openness in the media and an interest in seeing diverse viewpoints represented:

“The age of monologue media is over; media should be interactive,” he said. In Iran, millions of Web sites are blocked, and the state news media has a monopoly, while the authorities use radio waves to block satellite transmissions from abroad. “In a country whose legitimacy is rooted in its people, then there is no fear from free media,” he said.

Considering the past eight years of massive closures of all manner of reformist media and jailing of journalists and bloggers, if Rouhani is serious then it could mark a new day for a free Iranian media.  Rouhani also called for moderation in enforcement of Islamic regulations especially regarding the moral police who harass women (and men) deemed to be wearing dress that is too western or immodest.

The president-elect will not have an easy time of it if he truly plans to realize a moderate or reformist agenda.  There are powerful authoritarian forces at work that will do everything possible to stymie any such efforts.  Rouhani alluded to this in this passage from his speech:

“The majority of Iranian people voted for moderation, collective wisdom, insight and consultation,” he said. “Everybody should accept the people’s vote — the government should accept the people’s vote. The people have chosen a new path.”

Interestingly, when Al-Monitor’s reporter sought to find conservative journalists willing to criticize the speech, he could find none.  They felt that Ayatollah Khamenei had laid down the law and told them to hold their criticism in abeyance.  So they held their tongue.  No one knows how long such a honeymoon will last.

We should keep in mind that the best talkers aren’t necessarily the best rulers.  In fact, many like our own president use golden words to conceal bad deeds.  There is the distinct possibility that Rouhani will fall short of the promise he’s shown in this speech.  But, man it sure is a welcome change to hear this message compared to the dour-sour words of Ahmadinejad and the old regime.

An important part of the equation is how the U.S. responds to this new tone from Tehran.  If Obama continues to waffle in his response to Iran; if he doesn’t decisively embrace a more open, flexible position, then all this readiness to deal could go to waste.  The ball is really in the U.S. president’s court.  Is he nothing but a good talker or can he actually achieve tangible results?  The jury is still out, but my inclination is to judge him wanting.  Prove me wrong, Barack.  I dare you.

Al Jazeera’s coverage of the speech is worth a read as well.

{ 13 comments… add one }
  • Thamar Eilam Gindin June 29, 2013, 11:00 PM

    Funny post.
    You forgot he said the overwhelming vote is a vote of confidence in the Islamic Republic.
    He will definitely be better than AN, but let’s not get too excited.

    For Persian speakers:

    • Richard Silverstein June 30, 2013, 2:52 AM

      @Thamar Gindin: Yes, of course, Tamar, he’s a man of the system. He’s not a revolutionary. He may not work miracles. But just to be decent & competent and moderate–that could be pretty amazing.

      If you’re looking for a leader to topple the Islamic Republic I think you’re going to be sorely disappointed. That man doesn’t exist. This regime may not survive or may transform into something better & more democratic. But that can only happen once the world stops seeing the current Iranian government as the devil incarnate.

    • Daniel June 30, 2013, 3:54 AM

      @ Thamar Eilam Gindin:

      “… he said the overwhelming vote is a vote of confidence in the Islamic Republic.”

      And he is right. What’s your point?

      • Richard Silverstein June 30, 2013, 7:52 PM

        She, like many Israeli-Iranians wants a secular democratic Iran. Good luck with that.

        • Meni Zehavi July 1, 2013, 7:12 AM

          Secular as in “let’s forget about our historical sensibilities and responsibilities as a Moslem nation and consume ourselves into delirium”?
          Democratic as in “let the fatcats run as many political parties as they want, as long as they pull the strings and are, in turn, fully dependent on IMF, the World Bank, and other related institutions”?

          For the record: I am a deeply secular person, and I have little sympathy for organized religion given political power. But usual Israeli rants about the lack of democracy in Iran smack too much of self-righteous egocentrism. Those are Iranians who should decide how their country will be governed. And they seem to have more urgent concerns than making Israelis feel better.

  • ToivoS June 30, 2013, 12:43 AM

    This sounds encouraging. I agree with you that this does put the ball in Obama’s court. I strongly suspect that nice words in response to Rouhani will not be sufficient and Obama will have to signal that we are willing to compromise on Iran’s right to enrich uranium for their nuclear reactors. Basically we will have to accept that Iran can continue to enrich to 5% U235. Iran has already agreed to the various safeguards against making weapons grade U235. This will require that the US drop its current demands that are holding up the negotiations.

  • pradip June 30, 2013, 11:19 AM

    the new Iranian prsedent is not moderate and wanrs Israel destroyed its just woeds irans nuclear programme will continue don’t be fooled

  • Mary Hughes Thompson June 30, 2013, 8:04 PM

    Well that certainly didn’t take long. I can’t wait to hear what Bibi is going to say about this. He can’t be very happy with this news.

  • Fred Plester July 1, 2013, 4:03 AM

    Democracy in Iran requires the removal of the parallel power structure. The new president was elected convincingly, but in a system where he can be over-ruled at any time by the Supreme Leader, for whatever reason seems sufficient to him.

    It’s not just that the Supreme Leader has a right of veto over what the President, Prime Minister and Cabinet might do: he has a complete power structure including both uniformed and plain-clothes militias, revenue streams (A very important factor) a large proportion of the country’s fertile land “held in trust” and what amounts to an over-ride on the judicial process. So Iran does now have a potential democratic government, it’s just that the parallel power structure can do anything it likes without reference to the government, and that includes starting and fighting wars, as Revolutionary Guard troops are now doing in Syria.

    It’s like a cross between the Spanish Inquisition and the CIA as it was in the late sixties before Congressional oversight got a proper grip. But if that power structure was removed, the Iranian government would be quite legitimate, and, importantly, functional.

    Iran is probably the only country in the world where significant regime change needn’t involve any dislocation or disorder, though Turkey was in a similar situation when General Attaturk’s government gradually dismantled the Caliphiate’s powers, partly in order to allow Turkey to function as a modern state and mainly to keep Turkey out of any further wars with her neighbours and major world powers.

    To do this, Attaturk had to be seen to be successful (the Caliphiate had been seen to lose its Empire) and he needed a certain amount of time, too, so the job could be tackled at a pace which wouldn’t trigger any public disquiet.

    If Churchill’s invasion of Gallipoli had been somewhat better planned and executed, Attaturk wouldn’t have been Turkey’s one and only successful general and the country might not have made the transition to modernity.

    It needs to be the Iranian president who succeeds, and the Supreme Leader’s private armies which are seen to fail. So, if things go badly for the IRG and Hezbollah in Syria, it’s in the West’s interests to give the Iranian PRESIDENT some chance at progress at the very moment the Supreme Leader is associated with failure.

    This would require American politicians to behave in a non-primitive way, of course, and that’s going to be a very tall order with the present generation of Senators and Congressmen.

    • Daniel July 2, 2013, 2:37 PM

      @ Fred Plester: Your analysis and implied critiques are a propos, but for the sake of objectivity, I need to point out that I think it’s disingenuous to begin with the words: “Democracy in Iran requires …”

      Let’s be very clear that there are strong elements of democracy in the Iranian republic, just as there are strong elements in democracy in the United States. Both are severely flawed, when held up to an idealized standard of “pure democracy” which exists precisely nowhere on the planet, never has and perhaps never will.

      The secular Western states, which like to wear democracy as a makeup, are grotesquely corrupt, and never allow the really serious questions of politics, economics and warfare to be determined by anything close to a popular assembly (with a few exceptions that are irrelevant to the point). They have perfected the art of democratic pageantry, but pageantry is not the same as rule of the people. The powerful classes have figured out precisely how many crumbs to throw from their dining table to the people in order to win their grudging acceptance. But if that is democracy, it is also a humiliating farce.

      Nearly 73% of the eligible voters of Iran turned out in the recent Iranian presidential election. In contrast, just over 58% of the eligible voters of the US voted in 2012.

      In Iran, the Guardian Council (half of which, by the way, is elected by the Majlis) decides who gets to run — in this case, eight candidates were upresented. In America, an oligarchal capitalist machine decides who gets to run — in this case, as always, two candidates were presented.

      So please don’t engender the impression that Iran “lacks democracy” while we English-speakers “have democracy”. Even if that was not what you were saying, and if it was not your intent to say so, I want to remind you that it is a dangerous and foolish myth repliicated all too often and carelessly.

      And going even further, on a personal note, I am more interested in how much good or evil a government does, both its people and to the rest of the world, than how “democratic” it is. It is indeed evil to rob the people — openly or more subtly — of the power to govern themselves. But it is also evil to oppress, murder and steal. Which has done more evil in the world — the US government, or the government of Iran? And which can be expected to do more evil in the future?

  • Israel's hand in Argentine bombing July 1, 2013, 9:59 AM


    Jewish ex-Argentina minister faces probe in bombing

    Write about this story!

    • Bob Mann July 2, 2013, 3:18 AM

      This post certainly appears to be, at the very least, off-topic.

  • pradip July 1, 2013, 5:16 PM

    iran is a wonderful country with wonderful people and in Isfahan[ive been there] one of the most beautiful cities in the world with stunning archecture but like most muslims they hate Israel and want to destroy her.i don’t belive there are any moderate Iranians who do not want Israel destroyed in fact the so called moderates will iuused honeyed words but there aim is Israel distruction which in my mind isn purlyly evil anti semetic and satanic

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