Accessibility links

Breaking News

Analysts' View: Iran's Reforms

Many analysts doubt that new Iranian President Hassan Rohani will bring sweeping change to the country.
There are a host of unanswered questions surrounding Iran's new President Hassan Rohani and the more moderate domestic and foreign policies he says he wants to pursue. RFE/RL turned to four Iran-watchers for their thoughts on the course the country may follow.

No Appetite For Revolutionary Change

Public opinion has shifted very dramatically behind Rohani. What they are saying is "you lead and we will follow." Clearly, they don't want to get ahead of Rohani because that would then cause serious challenges to his leadership.

In a sense, the public has learned through bitter struggle over the years, but particularly since 2009, that there is no point [in confronting] the establishment directly but rather to try and use openings to wrest more of that public space from the establishment.

But I don't see that there is appetite for radical revolutionary change. I think people are so tired, and so fatigued, that what they want is a bit more level playing field in terms of opportunity, in terms of information access, and so on. They are also conscious that, if they do now demand too much from Rohani, the radical conservative forces will clip his wings because they would see him as a threat to the establishment.

That said, obviously, the more you loosen the noose, clearly there will be more demands made. And what Rohani has been very careful with is not to promise the earth. He has been very careful every time -- on the economy, on culture -- to say we cannot extend the bounds of our current system.

So the message is clear coming from him: "Don't expect me to turn Iran into a liberal United Kingdom or a liberal United States, it's not going to happen on my watch. But what I will do is facilitate for you, provide for you, opportunity and make sure that you are not actually in a public prison. That space in Iran becomes much more competitive and open and free for you, the citizens, to use."
Anoush Ehteshami
Anoush Ehteshami

To be honest, I don't think going forward immediately, the population would want much more from him. Were he, of course, able to deliver on the economy, that would make a big difference to the average Iranian. And that would then raise his popularity even beyond where it is now.

-- Anoush Ehteshami, joint director of the Economic and Social Research Council's Centre for the Advanced Study of the Arab World in the School of Government and International Affairs, Durham University, United Kingdom

No Danger In Meeting Low Expectations

I don't think Rohani would have any problem dealing with the current level of demands for freedom because the Iranian people have learned that under the Islamic regime, under theocracy, they cannot hope to get a Western-style democracy unless there is an uprising. And there is not likely to be an uprising because what happened in Iraq showed that the collapse of a strong regime does not lead to democracy but to chaos.

So, the people's expectation is not that in one day the regime will allow women to come out without hijab or that they will have Hyde Park corner in Tehran. Their expectation is to be able to criticize the amount of corruption in the Iranian system. The people would like to see why for eight years Mr. Ahmadinejad did whatever he wanted to do and only now [the establishment] is criticizing him.

What happened to the judiciary during these eight years? Why did the head of the Judiciary, Mr. Sadeq Larijani, say nothing? Why did [Supreme Leader] Ayatollah Ali Khamenei keep supporting Mr. Ahmadinejad? The people would like to be able to talk about the lack of medicine, the lack of hospital beds. They want to know why [the]Iranian currency is so cheap that it has lost its value. And they want to speak about social issues, about relations between man and woman, about temporary marriage, about prostitution, about all of that because [the regime] just wants to show a society where everybody is happy that Islam is ruling Iran.

Such expectations are not a danger to the regime at this stage, although they could be if these wishes are ignored. Now Mr. Rohani has brought some hopes, but not as much as [popular reformist ex-President Mohammad] Khatami brought. The people are not expecting Rohani to be another Khatami but they at least are expecting him to be another [more pragmatic ex-President Ali Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani -- to have a little bit of freedom, to be able to travel, and not to be isolated.

-- Alireza Nourizadeh, director of the Center for Iranian and Arab Studies in London

'Heroic Flexibility,' No Perestroika

Obvious comparisons can be drawn between Iran's new policy of openness, and the Soviet Union's glasnost.

The two states have a shared history in that each tried to achieve economic modernization without political modernization. Both experienced revolutions that began as revolts for political liberty and equal opportunity, but which were quickly hijacked by deeply ideological forces that rejected alternative groups and ideas.

Their post-revolution periods were similar in that ideological extremism, mixed with intolerance, led to a systematic annihilation of all real and potential political opponents. And although Iran is no comparison in military power to the once mighty Soviet Union, it too has not shied away from exporting its revolution and influence, thumbing its nose at the West.

When policy change did come, Iran and the Soviet Union were economically exhausted -- the U.S.S.R. because of its arms race with the United States, and Iran because of U.S.-led sanctions -- and each suffered from endemic corruption.

But there is a major difference between the two. The Soviet Union embarked on an era of openness under the leadership of a man, Mikhail Gorbachev, who eventually came to believe that the system needed a fundamental overhaul. As his views in this regard became more radical, he became willing to take more drastic steps.

Iran, in contrast, is led by a man, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who believes the system is divine and needs no major alteration. For now he has endorsed some measure of openness and a more accommodating foreign-policy style. But the supreme leader's call for "heroic flexibility" does not mean he will support the total restructuring seen during the Soviet Union's perestroika era.

One major tenet of the Iranian system is the supremacy of the supreme leader. Another important pillar is the overwhelming influence of tens of thousands of clerics, who follow the policies and the will of the supreme leader. They dominate the judicial system and a large chunk of the economy, together with the Revolutionary Guards.
Mardo Soghom
Mardo Soghom

Does Khamenei intend to lessen his own power and give the elected president and parliament more freedom of action? That is highly doubtful. Does he intend to lessen the role of the clerics? That's even more doubtful. As a result, all we can expect is a bit more openness, as it existed in the 1990s until 2003, when popular protests were followed by increasing crackdowns on all sorts of freedoms, including access to the Internet.

Glasnost? Perhaps. Perestroika, not much.

-- Mardo Soghom, RFE/RL regional director for Iran and Iraq

Political Change Will Follow China Model

There is this phobia [within Iran's ruling theocracy] that allowing even any form of managed opposition can very quickly snowball into an opposition that will seek to supplant the system with something completely different. And this, of course, is not going to be tolerated.
For this reason, I find it highly unlikely to see a return of the Green Movement as activists to the central forum of activities. I think they were a transitory phase, where the changes we see now have roots in what happened four years ago, but that does not mean we will see a return at the same level of influence or policy impact. They will be there, but on a much smaller level of presence and influence.
Mehrdad Emadi
Mehrdad Emadi

​I think the model of political change in Iran will be much more similar to that in China, where the political change is managed and very closely observed, monitored, and measured by the party bosses and will only be tolerated as far as it is necessary to sustain the rate of economic growth and to reduce the level of unemployment and beyond that will be seen as an unnecessary luxury for the society.

-- Mehrdad Emadi, senior research consultant with the U.K.-based Betamatrix International Consultancy