Lessons for interpreting Iran

By Hooman Majd
June 27, 2013

Iranian President-elect Hassan Rohani speaks with the media in Tehran June 17, 2013. REUTERS/Fars News/Majid Hagdost

Almost two weeks have passed since Hassan Rohani, the mild-mannered cleric often described as politically and socially moderate, was elected president of Iran by a landslide — surprising virtually every expert and foreign government as well as many Iranians. The postmortems have been fast and furious — mostly from the same experts who got the elections wrong in the first place, which makes one wonder whether the proverbial monkey with a typewriter can predict Iran better than those with iPads.

Iran watchers now appear to be falling over themselves trying to parse Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s intentions in “allowing” a free election that defied every expectation. For it is Khamenei who reigns supreme over the land. When he wants to, that is.

I have no idea if Khamenei planned a Rohani win all along, as some now suggest (Could he be more cunning than Machiavelli himself?); or if he was disappointed in the result; or if he didn’t care one way or another. The only thing that seems clear now is that he didn’t seek to rig the vote in favor of any one candidate. The danger in guessing what a man — who hardly anyone outside a close circle has even met — thinks, is that we misjudge Iran more often than not to our own detriment. Yet we keep guessing.

To be fair, some commentary on Rohani’s win was accurate: that the Iranian people spoke forcefully about a need for change (Who could have doubted that, after eight years of the comically incompetent, or even worse, vaingloriously delusional Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?); that the regime recognizes a need for change (no surprise to anyone who has watched regime stalwarts’ withering attacks on Ahmadinejad in the past two years); or that with the economy in tatters and international sanctions taking their toll on ordinary citizens, Iran was looking for a way out of its crises with the candidate most likely to right the ship of state.

But now inquiring minds — from Jerusalem to London to Washington and points in between — want to know what’s next, and the only way they can guess is to try to read the regime. Or more precisely, the head of the regime — who happens not to be the president.

It would be good to pause, however, and remind ourselves that the election in Iran was not about America, or any other country. It was for and about the people who live and breathe in the land of their birth.

So while the vote could be seen from the outside as a rejection of the path Iran is on, it can also be viewed as a clear rejection of the Western narrative on Iran. A narrative that asserts that it doesn’t matter who the president of Iran is, and that Iranians have no say in their future or in the direction their country takes. There are, at minimum, some lessons that Western observers can learn from the 2013 Iranian election — particularly those who make policy:

1.)    Ignore psychoanalysis of the supreme leader and stop trying to predict what his moves and motives will be. Ignore the by now conventional wisdom that he is implacably opposed to relations with the United States, rejects any reform of the political system and distrusts anyone who might disagree with him. Either that — or assume he’ll do the opposite of what we think.

2)   Assume that Iran will act out of self-interest and protect its national interests, rights and security no matter who the president, or even the supreme leader, is. On the nuclear issue, that means Iran will not give up what it sees as its sovereign rights at the whim of greater powers — though it might be more willing to make some compromises. But if the nuclear question can be solved, Rohani might be the man to do it, as long as we don’t expect him to sell his country down the river.

On Syria, the Iranian regime has no particular love for Syrian President Basher al-Assad — after all, a regime that is willing to sacrifice one of its fathers, Ayatollah Rafsanjani, for the sake of its stability and survival is unlikely to be in a loving relationship with one man in Syria. Rather, Iran sees Syria through the prism of its national security and strategic interests. And it is not in its interests to see a Saudi-backed Salafist regime on its doorstep.

Rohani, or even someone like the imprisoned leader of the Green Movement, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, will not see it any other way. Assad, to the Iranian government, is the key to a peaceful transfer of power to a more representative government — but one that will not prove a threat to Iran or its interests in Lebanon. As such, it is in Washington’s interests to include Iran in any negotiations over the future of Syria. Assuming, that is, we also don’t want a Salafist regime in Syria, a sectarian war or a complete breakdown of security on Israel’s doorstep.

3)   Ignore Iranian opposition groups abroad (and their Western supporters) who insist that the Islamic regime is teetering and a single helpful push from Washington will cause it to topple. Though the Iranian people used this election to speak against the direction their country has taken in the last eight years — and spoke even louder four years ago with the birth of the Green Movement — there is no indication that they are looking for a wholesale change in regime.

While international sanctions have hurt the economy and are negatively affecting the daily lives of ordinary citizens, they are also not likely to be the spark that ignites a revolution — and one that will be Washington-friendly at that. No, to paraphrase a certain U.S. official from the Iraq war era, we will, for the future, be dealing with the Iran we have, not the one we would like to have.

Western policy-makers probably won’t take any of these lessons — let alone learn them. Rohani’s victory, a cause for celebration on the streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities, however, should not be seen as an opportunity to engage in debate over how “moderate” he is, or how he will make no difference to foreign policy, or even if he is Khamenei’s Trojan Horse.

It should instead be an opportunity for Westerners to re-examine their policies toward Iran over the past 30-plus years, and question the narrative that has taken hold in Washington and other Western capitals about Iran, and more important, the Iranian people.

They, and the regime, may surprise us again.

 

PHOTO (Insert A): Ian’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei casts his ballot at his office during Iran’s presidential election in central Tehran, June, 14, 2013. REUTERS/Fars News/Hassan Mousavi

PHOTO (Insert B): People wear green bands in support of the Iranian opposition movement during the funeral of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri in the holy city of Qom, Dec. 21, 2009. REUTERS/via Your View

 

11 comments

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What a funny and childish article. The simpleton author thinks that the Iranian issue is about nuclear program. Well, it is not. The Iranian issue is about US imperial hegemony in that region. It has nothing to do with nuclear issue, human rights, democracy and crap. US did nothing when North Korea went nuclear (as have many other countries that US opposed their nuclearization from Russia and France to India and Pakistan).

Human rights, freedom and democracy are in perfect condition in Iran compared to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Jordan all being US allies.

US is in a battle with Iran over that region and its resources. Nuclear issue is providing cover for US strategic plan. But unlike the made up scenarios with which US has been playing all round the world in the past eg. Iraqi WMD’s, the Iranian nuclear program is very much real.

So this issue is going to be solved in either of these two ways. Either US bombs the crap out of Iran making a crater out of that country, killing and maiming most of its population after having it starved by sanctions or alternatively Iran grows some balls and weaponize its program therefore inoculating itself against any invasion and attack. It is really upto Iranians now.

The game is out of US control. There are literally now over several hundred sanctions placed over Iranian nation. There is almost no possibility for these sanctions to be removed in the first part of this century even if Iran is invaded and capitulates tomorrow.

So Iranians have only themselves to blame if the imperial power attacks them tomorrow, since they did not prepare a credible nuclear deterrence to prevent a mad zombie like super power turning their country to ash. The only things that keep peace and guarantees sovereignty in modern world are nuclear weapons. The more a nation has them the more independent, sovereign and secured it is.

As for Syria, it is really a mess. US is basically supporting, arming, training and leading the same terrorists in Syria that it is fighting in Afghanistan simultaneously. There is absolutely no difference. The only thing that makes US do this heinous and treacherous act, is the joy and pleasure US gets out of suffering of other human beings and particularly Iranians.

The only nation that can bring a balance and peace to that region and by extension the world, is the nation of Iran if they choose to be a nuclear armed state. Without a nuclear armed Iran guarding the region, expect much pillage and bloodshed by US in coming decades. Middle east needs a cold war. US/EU are playing their part. It is time Iran plays its by going nuclear, or if not then should prepare for the extinction of Iranian nation, wholesome in this decade.

Posted by BluePlaneteer | Report as abusive

Brilliant article. Right on as usual.

Posted by lastsolfa | Report as abusive

The above is academic. Waste of time.

Most important thing all of us are missing is where are the fraudsters and bluff masters who were propagating an attack on Iran? Just last year February, all the “pro Israel” media were leading the public to believe the attack will happen any hour any second. “All options are on the table.” “No options are off the table.” The Iranians were expected to shiver by these proclamations. Two aircraft carriers were paraded in the Persian Gulf with the hope that the kindergarten Iranians would be scared to their bones, down their pants and surrender. Or probably run away. Oil was at steady $60. Straight it went to 120. What a world scale bluff it was ! On the contrary the Iranians threatened to bomb the nuclear powered aircraft carriers into a modern day Chernobyl / Fukushima in the center of Persian Gulf for the world to see. One crook even wrote in a leading media that Iran will be attacked during the months of April to June 2012 when the skies over Iran are the clearest.

But where are these fraudsters now to while away their time? These guys have realised no one will care about their doomsday stories anymore. Because they are outdated. Because all that fraudsters write is fraud and bluff.

Today, when the west had to accede to Putin’s warning not even to touch Syria, and open rebuff on the Snowden affair, it is these same fraudsters that are writing more conciliatory articles on Iran. These fraudsters do not realize that it is the west who want a dialogue desperately. Not Iran. So therefore it is in west’s interest to bend backwards and talk to Iran. Not the other way round. These fraudsters will again get a red nose when they discover Iran is uninterested to talk, which is the status as of today. Of course Iran will “talk” (it cant shun talks) but no end result. Unless the agenda of the talks include a time table for west’s exit the ME on a permanent basis.

Bluff masters have no responsibility. No accountability. So write anything. And expect people to believe their story. And talk about Israel to strike Iran if “talks” do not yield any result? Quite the contrary. Expect America to strike Israel’s (yes Israel) military infrastructure if Israel jumps the gun. There are enough and more of other problems. Like China. And increasing irrelevance of America in the international community.

Posted by Dhirajkunar | Report as abusive

My first sentence “The above is academic” should be revised to “The above article by Hooman Majid is academic”.

Posted by Dhirajkunar | Report as abusive

The author makes excellent points that are likely to go unheeded.

Unlike student of science Western media generally reach certain conclusions and then retro-fit arguments to suit their biases.

Posted by Procivic | Report as abusive

Hooman Majid, what a brilliant article!!!

This is by far the best article I have read about Iran in any Western news circle. I am suprised that Reuters would even allow it to be published. But then maybe the media is getting the green light from the establishment to change tone on Iran.

But he said it best, lets stop believing that the Iranian goverment has no support. The majority of the people suppport the government, even if they do not like certain policies or officials.

And lets stop listening to these stupid exiled Iranians who have not been back to there country in 35 years!!!!

Posted by KyleDexter | Report as abusive

And as for Mr. Khamenei, he is one of the SMARTEST men in the world, far smarter than Obama or Netenyahu. The man has built up the military and intelligence machine of Iran, has proxies and governments all over the Middle East, and has been giving it up the you know where of Isreal, the US and the UK for the past few decades.

And in the end, he calmly and cooly went and voted for Irans next president.

Mr. Khamenei, you truely are a genius!

Posted by KyleDexter | Report as abusive

Amazing how Mr. Majd thinks we’re so naive. Iranian expats always assume only Western policy toward Tehran was at fault. According to these pseudo-intellectuals, Tehran is not responsible for any belligerence towards the US. Khamenei and the Clerics of Qum are holy relics of honesty and peaceful co-existence. Imagine, according to Khamenei western culture is evil and needs to be replaced with Islamic theocracy. Has anyone ever read a logical or unbiased analysis by an Iranian… where both the US and Iran are to be blamed for the cold-war mentality that exists today. No… it’s always western arrogance and how Iran is the victim of persecution. Honestly… how archaic and how boring.

Posted by allang | Report as abusive

“Human rights, freedom and democracy are in perfect condition in Iran…”
This statement negated everything else you wrote in you post!
Are you insane or in complete denial of the truth?

Posted by maggirmay29953 | Report as abusive

Mr. Majd, after you partied along with major rock n’roll artists, movie stars, models, jet setters the world over, every single monied westerner and globalist, you became an whitewasher extraordinaire for the Iranian regime? What’s wrong did someone find out what con game you ran with the passports while your father was wrapping up his job as the Shah’s last ambassador to Japan? Or are you just another opportunist slag who’ll happily sell out an entire country in order to keep yourself welcome in high places? Either way, you’re a a two-bit obfuscater and an intellectual prostitute.

Posted by Ban | Report as abusive

Everyone knows you can’t pass gas in Iran without Khamenei’s approval and blessing and Rohani is no different. All he did was read from a careful script that mentions “moderate” a dozen times. It’s no different than a Democrat saying “stimulus” or a Republican yelling out “jobs” in every speech. Iran has been and remains an obstinate theocracy run by mullahs hellbent of spreading their special version of radicalized Islam around the world and there is no way they are going to back down until the West fully supports the people of Iran and empowers them to overthrow their government the same way the Arab Spring is dramatically changing the rest of the Middle East.

I think it would make an interesting first test of Rohani’s so-called “moderation” to have him order the removal of Iran fighters and weapons from the Syrian conflict and work for a peaceful transfer of power from a corrupt Assad regime to a democratically elected one…but I’m not holding my breath. Iran’s leaders, especially Khamenei, have a deep vested interest in maintaining power and influence in Syria that they are willing to contribute to the continued slaughter of innocent civilians. They don’t lose sleep over abusing their own people, I don’t think they care how many die in Syria.

Posted by ChangeIranNow | Report as abusive