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.