Lessons for interpreting Iran
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