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OP-ED: Iran in the Era of Moderation and Reform

WASHINGTON, Jul 18 2013 (IPS) - Do you expect a miracle from Rouhani? You are heading down the wrong road. Please take it easy!

This was the initial sentiment among Iranian president-elect Hassan Rouhani’s supporters in social networks, blogs, the media, virtual or actual forum discussions and post-election gatherings days after his victory in Iran’s eleventh presidential election.

Iranians were excited by an unexpected win in the unpredictable elections of Jun. 14.

They also wisely understood that now is the time for balanced expectations as Rouhani takes the first steps into his new government.

Ending the domestic economic crisis and improving rocky international relations are on top of Rouhani’s “to do” list.

Most of his supporters recognise that he faces a long and hard path ahead in rectifying a country with 42 percent inflation, 12.3 percent unemployment and a 143-billion-dollar money supply, according to the latest data coming out of Tehran.

Despite acquiring 539 billion dollars from oil revenue in 2012, Iran’s economic crisis worsened due to mismanagement by the country’s outgoing president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Iran’s domestic political and social situations are similarly chaotic, while the human rights situation is in crisis.

Rouhani campaigned on a platform of freeing Iran’s political prisoners.

He said he would open up breathing space for newspapers and journalists, prepare a “civil rights charter”, repair the economy and restore Iranian relations with the West and other countries through a “government of wisdom and moderation”.

Rouhani won Iran’s presidency through the concerted efforts of a young generation of activists committed to reform.

They maintained that a moderate approach spearheaded by inside actors – while, at the same time, opposing any external intervention from foreign countries – could effectively change Iran.

Rouhani’s campaign activists from inside and outside the country united in calls for the release of all imprisoned youth, students, journalists, human rights lawyers, political figures and activists from the 2009 election, which saw the rise of the Green Movement.

His supporters also established a campaign to demand the release of Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi, the Greens’ two leading figures.

But this demand, made in the first days following his victory, was premature.

Can Rouhani free prisoners without a mandate from the Supreme Leader (Ayatollah Ali Khamenei)?

Can he fulfill his promises to the people and run his government without a “reconciliation” of the two other main branches of the state – the judiciary system and Parliament?

Both are controlled by conservatives – clear opponents of Rouhani’s camp. Article 110 of the Iranian Constitution indicates that the power and authority of the Supreme Leader surpasses the president’s. The complex structure of the Islamic Republic of Iran doesn’t allow the president alone to push through domestic and international reform.

That said, three weeks after the election, Khamenei met judiciary officials and mandated them to assist Rouhani.

This mandate will give the new president a strong boost in fulfilling his campaign promises.

Rouhani’s victory has been described as an alliance between Iran’s moderates and reformists.

The reformists are defined as those political leaders who sought significant change in the political system.

The moderates are defined as those who focused more on the economic strength of the country than on radical political change.

The two political leaders, former moderate president of Iran Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989 – 1997) and former reformist president Mohammad Khatami (1997–2005), heeded the message of the populace in building a coalition of moderation-reform to support Rouhani.

So far, the wisdom of this alliance has been effective in shaping Rouhani’s victory.

He is wisely forming a spectrum made up of both reformists (from Khatami’s cabinet) and moderates (from Rafsanjani’s team) for his administration.

The failure of reformists and moderates in the 2005 election taught both political camps to revise their approach and ponder their weaknesses during the past eight years.

Rouhani learned from the reformists that he must avoid radicalism which might alienate too many constituencies. He also learned how the moderates lost their popularity by forgetting ordinary people and middle-class families.

Maintaining the moderation-reform method in leading his government will enable Rouhani to rectify the domestic and international crises that have engulfed Iran, while also addressing civil and human rights demands as an important second priority.

Washington needs to rethink its approach in this new Iranian era.

Western sanctions have unified Iran’s opposition and its youth behind the state, whether they truly support it or not. Washington has to accept this and revise its policy toward Iran.

It needs to listen to the message and approach of the opposition, whose goal is reforming the country moderately while defending and recognising its national interests.

In a recent letter to President Obama, a group of former U.S. government officials, diplomats, military officers and national security experts referred to Rouhani’s election as a “major potential opportunity”. They urged Obama to engage in bilateral negotiations with Iran and engage it beyond the nuclear issue.

Increasing negative pressure and deepening sanctions, instead of achieving a negotiated agreement on the nuclear issue, will benefit neither the United States nor Iran.

Iran’s people have created a new era of moderation-reform to rebuild their country.

The world must listen to their message.

*Sahar Namazikhah is an Iranian journalist based in Washington, D.C. She was previously editor of several daily newspapers in Tehran. She is currently director of Iran Programmes at George Mason University’s Center for Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution.

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