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Analysis: Rohani Signals Openness, But Dramatic Changes Unlikely

Iranian President Hassan Rohani waves before departing for the United States to attend the UN General Assembly on September 23
Iran's new president makes his first official trip to the United Nations amid expectations that he will showcase a new spirit of openness at home and abroad.

Tehran has stoked expectations ahead of Hassan Rohani's trip by saying it is ready to show "heroic flexibility" in its foreign policy and by releasing a handful of political prisoners. But there are good reasons not to expect dramatic changes of course.
One reason is the nature of Iran's theocracy. Because the system claims to be infallibly guided by the supreme leader's interpretation of religious law, any sharp reversals of policy risk undermining the establishment's own legitimacy.

According to Anoush Ehteshami of Durham University in Britain, Rohani, himself a cleric, is well aware of the dangers of opening the doors to change too wide. "Obviously, the more you loosen the noose, clearly there will be more demands made," he says. "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 far, the changes that have come since Rohani took office in in August can be seen more as gestures of goodwill than of radical departures.

He told the U.S. television network NBC last week that he had "complete authority" from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to reach a nuclear deal with Western powers -- a deal that presumably would require concessions from both sides. But, apart from saying he is ready for "serious" negotiations, he has yet to detail what kind of new approach to the nuclear crisis he would take.

Well-Received Gestures

Similarly, Tehran's recent release of human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh and other prisoners reaches out to the many victims of the regime's crackdown on the mass protests that followed the 2009 reelection of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. But no one has spoken of giving the opposition a greater voice in Iran's politics.

Still, such gestures have been well-received internationally, in part because they contrast so dramatically with the belligerence of the preceding Ahmadinejad regime. They have also been welcomed by Iran's people, but for different reasons.

Ehteshami says Rohani can afford to set a limited course of change because the Iranian public's own expectations of how much he can deliver are limited. He says the public has learned through the violent suppression of the opposition Green Movement that there is no point in confronting the establishment directly. With this in mind, public pressure is focused on winning wider social and economic freedoms, not political ones.

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Alireza Nourizadeh, director of the Center for Iranian and Arab Studies in London, says that what Iranians most want today is to be able to speak out on issues that directly affect their lives, from corruption to the lack of medicine. Of particular concern is the collapse of the Iranian currency, the rial, under Western sanctions imposed to bring Iran to the bargaining table over its nuclear program.

Such demands for a greater popular voice are not negligible. For one, they could create pressure for Tehran to loosen media restrictions that have for years targeted reformist publications. This, in turn, could open the way for greater public pressure on other issues, such as the nuclear crisis.

According to Nourizadeh, today's demand for a greater public voice is something the regime can live with. "These expectations by the people are not a danger to the regime at this stage, although they could be if these wishes are ignored," he says. "Now Mr. Rohani has brought some hopes, but not as much as [reformist President Mohammad] Khatami brought. The people are not expecting Rohani to be another Khatami, but they at least are expecting him to be another [President Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani, to have a little bit of freedom, to be able to travel, and not to be isolated."

Iranian 'Perestroika' Unlikely

Rafsanjani, who was president of Iran from 1989 to 1997, is known as a pragmatist focused more on economic reforms than political ones. This makes it unlikely that this Iranian-style glasnost -- or openness -- could lead to political restructuring and democratization akin to the Soviet Union's perestroika era.

Iranian-born economist Mehrdad Emadi of the U.K.-based Betamatrix International Consultancy says the ruling clerical establishment is not ready to share power. He also says it would be naive to expect any sudden tolerance for the kind of direct opposition embodied by the Green Movement.

Instead of Iran following the Soviet course of perestroika, he expects Iran's evolution over the coming years to follow communist China's model instead. That model allows structural changes to the governing system only when they advance the country's economic goals.

In China, change has meant encouraging an ever-freer capitalist economy while retaining one-party rule. In Iran it might mean progressively loosening the dominance of quasi-state organizations of the economy so long as doing so does not overly weaken the political monopoly of the ruling establishment that is closely tied to them.

One reason why Iran's establishment would be loath to engage in too much political restructuring is its fear that doing so could lead to one of the unintended effects perestroika had on the Soviet Union. That was the eventual break-up of the U.S.S.R. because different national groups asserted their own demands for political freedom and, finally, statehood.

In Emadi's view, Tehran fears that relaxing centralized power could encourage autonomy or secession-minded groups in Iran's Azeri-majority northwest, in Kurdish-populated areas of the west, and in Baluch-majority Sistan and Baluchistan in the southeast. Each group has cross-border ties with kinsmen elsewhere in the region.

"The fear is that they will seek closer ties with Turkey in [Iranian] Azerbaijan, or with Iraq's Kurdistan, which is semiautonomous, or with Pakistan, where there are people with very close cultural ties with Iran's Sistan and Baluchistan," Emadi explains.

Emadi calls the fears ill-founded, saying that Tehran's current policy of neglecting regional differences is responsible for fanning sporadic outbreaks of secessionist violence.

This includes the 2005-06 bombings in the southwestern Khuzestan Province that were blamed on ethnic Arab organizations, and the rise in Sistan and Baluchistan of the armed Baluch organization Jundollah. Tehran says foreign meddling is behind the violence.