After a turbulent eight-year tenure of outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the people of Iran have made their voices heard in recent presidential elections by electing a reformist who will undoubtedly take a very different approach to pressing national issues. Though many hoped to see meaningful diplomatic engagement between Iran and the United States when U.S. President Barack Obama came to office, ties between Tehran and Washington remain as tense as ever, with Iran subjected to a crippling economic sanctions regime over its disputed nuclear program.
Although leaders in Israel and the United States repetitively insist that Iran is edging closer to the threshold in being able to create a nuclear weapon, evidence shows that Tehran’s nuclear program is for civilian purposes. Despite conducting its nuclear activities within the framework of international law, average Iranian citizens are the main victims of punishing US-led sanctions that have destroyed the Iranian currency and made life-saving medications unaffordable for most. To discuss how Iran’s newly elected president will face the challenges and controversies that dominate the Iranian political landscape, Russia Today columnist Nile Bowie talks to award-winning journalist Kourosh Ziabari and explores the recent presidential elections in Iran, the signals it’s sending to the international community, and the possible changes in Iran’s foreign and nuclear policy.
Q: Hassan Rouhani, a reform-minded moderate cleric and former nuclear negotiator under President Khatami, will be Iran’s new president. There is talk in Washington of direct US-Iran talks in light of Rouhani coming to power. Rouhani campaigned on a platform of trying to “normalize” relations with the West, and he even made statements like, “It is good to have centrifuges running, provided people’s lives and livelihoods are also running.” Given Rouhani’s stance, did the Iranian public treat these elections as a public referendum on the nuclear issue? And how did Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei interpret the results?
A: To be honest with you, I should confess that the June 14 presidential election in Iran was firstly an examination for the current of extremist rightists who believed that the country’s affairs could be managed through maintaining hostility and animosity with the Western world, prolonging the nuclear controversy, and relying on skimpy business and trade with Russia and China. The candidate of this stream, Mr. Saeed Jalili, simply attracted an insignificant minority of the votes, 11.37%. I’m not saying that succumbing to the irrational demands of the world powers is a solution to Iran’s problems, but the political parties and streams supporting Mr. Jalili, who was supposedly Dr. Rouhani’s main contender, but came third in the final vote, irresistibly believed that the nuclear standoff with the West was not something significant and crucial for the future of the country. This is while Dr. Rouhani and his massive supporters had astutely come to the conclusion that the nuclear issue was the country’s main concern and the Achilles heel that was paralyzing the country’s economy, political structure, and international stature.
As a result, Dr. Rouhani based his campaign slogans on his foreign policy priorities which included the normalization of relations with the West in general, and the United States in particular, interaction with the outside world, improving Iran’s ties with its neighboring countries and finally bringing the controversy surrounding Iran’s nuclear program to an end.
As you precisely mentioned, the recent elections in Iran have been a public referendum on the nuclear issue. Even the most ordinary Iranian citizen had recognized that the staggering inflation, unusual supply of money in the society, the skyrocketing increase in the price of consumer goods, housing and automobiles, the unprecedented devaluation of Iran’s currency, Rial, and the annoying unemployment of the educated youth all stemmed from mismanagement in Iran’s nuclear program. According to some critics of President Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy, if nuclear energy is our inalienable right, which it unquestionably is, then cheap and inexpensive foodstuff, medicine and medical services, safe and secure transportation, a renewed aviation fleet, high-speed internet connection, employment, housing, free education and proper income are our inalienable rights, as well.
As for the Supreme Leader, he doesn’t seem to be dissatisfied with the results, but of course his favorite president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is leaving the office, and after all, Dr. Hassan Rouhani is a reformist, and Ayatollah Khamenei has been traditionally unfriendly with the reform-minded politicians, unlike the late founder of Islamic Revolution Imam Khomeini.
Q: When Rouhani was Iran’s nuclear negotiator, he played a key role in reaching an agreement with France, Britain and Germany that resulted in Iran suspending its uranium enrichment program. Would Rouhani concede to freezing the country’s civilian nuclear program to ease Western pressure, despite Iran being an abiding signatory to the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty? What could the response be from the Supreme Leader if Rouhani accepts US measures that are deemed to be wholly unfavorable to Iran?
A: Well, as you may have noted, President Rouhani implied during his first press conference on June 17 that the age of suspending uranium enrichment has passed. He says this because Rouhani is not alone in making decisions about Iran’s nuclear program. We have the parliament’s (Majlis) influential Foreign Policy and National Security Committee which is consisted of a number of conservative lawmakers mostly opposed to the reformist movements in Iran who boldly and resolutely resist the decisions of the president if they wish, the state TV which is supervised by the representative of the Supreme Leader and has a great impact on the course of political developments in the country, and above all, the Supreme Leader himself, who has the final say on the most of foreign policy issues, particularly the nuclear issue and the possible direct negotiations with the United States.
So, suspending the enrichment of uranium, which is seen as an unforgivable crime in Iran, cannot be put on agenda. However, everything depends on the craftsmanship of President Rouhani who has demonstrated that as a diplomat, he is able to handle the affairs in such a way that all the disputes can be settled in a short period of time. He may give certain concession to the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, UK and the U.S.) which neither the Supreme Leader nor the parliament hardliners can criticize or deny. For example, he may accept a temporary suspension of uranium enrichment in return for the freezing of the banking and gold sanctions. As the next step, he may put forward the offer that Iran can ship a certain amount of its low-enriched uranium (LED) to France or Russia and receive fuel rods for using in Tehran Research Reactor.
This step can be reciprocated by the lifting of EU’s oil embargo against Iran. Finally, Iran can promise to suspend its 20% enrichment of uranium, and continue enriching uranium to the extent of 3.5%, as it was doing before 2003. This can be a promising and serious sign that Iran is determined to resolve the nuclear standoff. And as a reward, the United States and European Union can lift all the sanctions and move toward the full normalization of relations with Iran and settle the remaining disputes on such cases as human rights, Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the U.S. support for the anti-Iran terrorist cult MKO. In this path, both parties should learn to forget about the past grievances and only contemplate on the future. Such an approach would guarantee Iran’s rights under the Non-Proliferation Treaty to have a peaceful nuclear program, and will alleviate the concerns of the international community regarding the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear activities.
Q: In the run up to the recent elections, Washington cast doubt over the legitimacy of the electoral process in Iran, while many mainstream analysts implied that these elections would somehow be controlled by the Supreme Leader, and that his candidate would surely be the winner. The opposite turned out to be true, with the only reformist being elected with a strong majority. Do you think these elections were portrayed fairly by Western media?
A: The electoral process in Iran had not been frequently challenged and questioned by the Western powers prior to the 2009 presidential election which was marred with the allegations of vote-rigging. It was surely an irretrievable damage to Iran’s public image in the world; however, we should scientifically investigate and figure out whether the reelection of President Ahmadinejad was fraudulent or not. At any rate, this was the only election in the Islamic Republic’s history which was labeled with vote-rigging, and I cannot say for sure if the allegations leveled by the West are true. Of course we had several parliamentary and presidential elections in which the reformists came to power; so it’s not the case that those who are elected are necessarily the hand-picked choices of the Supreme Leader.
At least in the 2013 election, it was demonstrated that those who undermine Iran’s electoral process have been thinking wrongfully. A reformist president was elected who certainly was not the favorite choice of the Supreme Leader. The portrayal of Iran’s presidential elections by the Western mainstream media resembles their general depiction of the Iranian society, their attitude toward the cultural, social and political developments in Iran and their viewpoint toward the Iranian lifestyle. They cannot detach themselves from the clichés which they have been parroting about Iran. This lopsided, impartial and biased portrayal of Iran has caused millions of American and European citizens to think of Iran as a retarded, uncivilized, deserted and miserable country with people who are not familiar with the representations of the modern civilization. Of course they don’t allow their audience to know that Iran is a country which had once stood atop the peaks of human civilization, science, literature and “decent” way of living…
Q: What does Rouhani’s victory say about the changing political sentiments in Iran after two terms of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? Where is Iran today after Ahmadinejad more generally – in terms of economic and social conditions? How do you think Iranians will remember Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?
A: Well, it’s wrong to evaluate the performance of politicians in black and white. Like every other president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has had remarkable contributions to his society, and of course pitfalls and shortcomings which deteriorated the lives of the Iranians across the country. However, I think for the majority of Iranians, especially those who live in the urban areas, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s tenure will be remembered as a period of economic hardships, political tensions and social restrictions as manifested in the closure of newspapers, cultural associations like the House of Cinema and the Association of Iranian Journalists.
Ahmadinejad, as the second non-cleric president of Iran’s history, could have left a memorable legacy for the Iranian people, but by selecting incompetent managers, disallowing the journalists and experts to critique and evaluate his performance, taking up an aggressive and confrontational foreign policy and attending to the issues which were not relevant to him, tarnished his own reputation. But please don’t forget that once he was in power, I always supported him and his administration against the spates of attacks being unleashed on him by the Western media, but now that he is leaving office, it’s time to talk about the tough 8 years we had with him more transparently. Let’s bear this in mind, that criticizing Ahmadinejad is not equivalent to being opposed to the Iranian government or the Islamic system. We all stand by our country and defend it against the ill-wished, ill-mannered enemies, but now, we want a peaceful and constructive interaction with the world instead of enmity and hostility.
Q: Iran’s model of religious democracy is basically unprecedented – it aims to blend modern participatory electoral politics together with a system of governance based upon Islamic ethics, administered by religious officials. Despite hardships and difficulties imposed by Western sanctions since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, it is a political system that continues to claim massive public support. What are Iran’s biggest achievements? Have attitudes both internationally and domestically changed towards Iran after the recent elections in contrast to what happened in 2009?
A: Unquestionably, the Islamic Revolution of 1979 was a turning point in the course of Iran’s contemporary history. It brought to an end frequent years of Iranian government’s subservience and obedient to the United States. The revolution emerged out of several years of civil protests against the tyrannical government of Mohammad Reza Shah. The Pahlavi dynasty had blatantly denied the Iranian citizens their basic political, social and economic rights. The whole country was kept in a constant state of underdevelopment and backwardness, the equal distribution of wealth was not on the government’s agenda and the economic situation of the country was really deplorable. Although the foreign diplomacy of Iran was vivacious thanks to the strong relationships the court had with the White House, people were usually dissatisfied with their living conditions. The government was unable to meet the people’s demands and provide them with the facilities they needed for a moderate life.
Following the revolution, the number of universities, schools, hospitals, roads, sports stadiums, housing units, department stores, cinemas, theaters, public libraries, factories, power plants and other infrastructures needed for the development of the country increased significantly and a new movement began for the renovation of the country’s infrastructures. You may not believe, but prior to the 1979 revolution, people in tens of major cities and thousands of villages in Iran didn’t have access to electricity, drinking water, fossil fuels and safe roads. It was the revolution that swayed the government officials to think of new solutions for improving the people’s livelihoods and enhancing the infrastructures.
Imam Khomeini, the late founder of Islamic Revolution, was a reform-minded spiritual leader, and this is why certain extremist insiders at the top of the Iran’s political echelon are afraid of his thoughts and his approach toward the way of managing the country’s affairs. You see that two of the close allies of Imam Khomeini, namely Mirhossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi were unexpectedly put under house arrest after they protested the results of the 2009 presidential elections. Their only crime was that they run against the incumbent President Ahmadinejd, otherwise, I don’t see any reason for their unwarranted imprisonment. Albeit it should be added that the United States and its European allies also irreparably betrayed the reform movement by explicitly supporting Mousavi and Karroubi in the 2009 election and calling them opposition leaders, and this gave the hardliners in Iran an excuse to stigmatize them and deprive them of their political rights and somehow exclude them from the political scene.
So, back to business, I think Imam Khomeini founded a new political system which was supposed to respond to the people’s material and worldly needs while helping them realize religious and moral sublimity and remaining committed to the principles of morality and ethics. This system of government revived the lost and forgotten human values which the secular world had consigned to oblivion and even sometimes opposed. This is the main reason for the Western powers’ opposition to the Islamic Republic. Since the Islamic Revolution, Iran began championing the cause of the oppressed Muslim nations, especially the people of Palestine who had been subject to Israeli occupation for decades. The Islamic Republic was predicated on resisting hypocrisy and double standards; something pervasive and ubiquitous in the Western powers’ behavior. These standards cannot be tolerated and even condoned by the Western powers whose major policies are always blended with portions of hypocrisy and duplicity. This is why the Islamic Republic has so many adversaries in the world, even among the Islamic states of the Middle East.
Of course the recent election has changed the international and domestic attitudes toward Iran. The new government will surely receive a more popular support from the Iranian people, and it will help the government in the nuclear negotiations to have the upper hand. The election has also signaled Iranian people’s craving for moderation and rationality, instead of extremism and radicalism.
Q: Iran has previously extended its hand in efforts to cooperate with the US in specific areas, and Washington failed to honor these efforts. Is there good reason to doubt the sincerity of the US in talks with Iran? Would it give up the ‘regime change’ policy it has maintained from the start of the revolution?
A: Undisputably, the Iranian government is right if it’s dubious toward the United States and its presumed efforts to reach out to Iran. Iran has always expressed willingness to hold talks with the United States on equal footings and based on mutual respect. But the point is that whenever some rational elements in the power structure of the two countries decided to facilitate the talks, the United States killed the chances of a fruitful and beneficial negotiation by imposing sanctions. Look at the recent sanctions bill which the House of Representatives has overwhelmingly passed, by a vote of 400 to 20. The new Iranian president, as I’m answering to your questions, has not sworn in yet. But the U.S. lawmakers have imposed a new round of sanctions on Iran. What’s the logic and rationale behind this new round of sanctions? How do the U.S. Congressmen justify the new oil embargo while the new Iranian president hasn’t ever had the chance to sit on his chair in the presidential palace and issue the first presidential decree, which is the appointment of his ministers? So you see that radicalism and fanaticism have always harmed Iran and the United States. Of course the new round of sanctions, if approved by the Senate and signed into law by the president, will deliver a lethal blow to President Rouhani’s call for moderation and interaction with the West.
It is for sure that certain U.S. administrations, especially the Reagan and Carter administrations, and the George W. Bush’s administration, had intentions for implementing the policy of regime change in Iran. Supporting, financing and aiding the terrorist cult Mujahedin-e-Khalq Organization (MKO) which has killed some 40,000 Iranians since the 1979 revolution is one of the signs indicating that the U.S. government, at certain junctures of time, pursued a policy of regime change in Iran. But there are indications that President Obama has changed this policy and that Washington has come to its senses and realized that the age of revolutions in Iran is over.
Q: Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu recently threatened Iran with military action over accusations that Tehran is building nuclear weapons, and called Rouhani a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has heavily pushed a bill seeking to impose a de facto ban on Iran’s oil exports, a cut off of any trade involving the euro, and moves to target Tehran’s shipping and automobile sectors. It would also curtail Washington’s ability to waive sanctions on third countries and their companies that continue to do business with Iran. Would the US take a chance to thaw relations with Iran under Rouhani in spite of Zionist pressure and significant lobbying?
A: Well, if AIPAC successfully convinces the U.S. Congress and government to ratify this bill, I can say for sure that there will never ever be a single speck of chance for a peaceful solution to the controversy over Iran’s nuclear program. The Zionists will extinguish all the possible ways of reconciliation between Iran and the United States to the detriment of Washington. It’s the United States which will lose a probable ally, and it is Europe which will be deprived of a lucrative market for free trade and business. By the way; let me clarify something. At this juncture, the Iranian people feel sympathetically toward the American people and their culture and civilization. But by pursuing the Zionist agenda, the Americans will even lose the minimal support they enjoy here in Iran.
Q: Aside from the nuclear and political issues, what are the biggest issues facing the Iranian nation today? What can Rouhani do to create meaningful solutions in line with popular reforms? If his moves are not well received by the Supreme Leader, is it possible that he might stymie any significant shifts toward reform?
A: There are several challenges ahead of President Rouhani and his team. First of all, he should sweep away the legacy of extremism that has been left in Iran’s public sphere. He should bring back morality to the Iranian society. In these 8 years, the conservative media have been relentlessly attacking the reformists and their supporters, calling them seditious, mobsters and criminal. This approach should change and the conservative media should learn that there’s a limit to the toleration of their destructive approach. I have always criticized these media for repeatedly insulting the reformist leaders and millions of people supporting them, saying that such media talk of their political opponents as if they are criminal Zionists massacring the defenseless people of Palestine in the Occupied Territories and the Gaza Strip!
Accordingly, we need to address the concerns of the cultural activists, authors, journalists, musicians, movie-makers and other artists who need greater freedoms, a better environment for creating rich and exalted artworks and participating in political activities without any restrictions.
Secondly, the concern Rouhani and his cabinet should address is the nation’s economic woes. The country is currently facing an astounding hyperinflation, unprecedented cut in the export of oil and petrochemical products, citizens’ decreased purchasing power, etc.
And finally, we have the foreign policy challenges. We need to settle our unnecessary disputes with not only the Western powers, but the Arab world, our neighbors and finally the United States. We need to find a viable solution for the nuclear controversy, which will surely solve many of the nations’ problems.
Q: Media reports claim that Iran’s former ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammad Javad Zarif, is Rouhani’s pick as foreign minister. Zarif is said to be highly respected by those in the United States, and even Vice President Joe Biden told the Washington Post in 2007 that Zarif could “play an important role in helping to resolve our significant differences with Iran peacefully.” What kind of changes do you see coming in Iran’s foreign policy? Russian President Vladimir Putin is set to visit Tehran as the first foreign guest of Rouhani. How will Iran’s relationship with Russia, and also China, grow?
A: Of course the appointment of Dr. Zarif as Iran’s new foreign minister marks a significant change in Iran’s foreign policy. Zarif is a reform-minded, moderate diplomat, like Rouhani himself, and he can certainly make effective contributions to a negotiated solution for Iran’s nuclear deadlock. But please note that the change in Iran’s foreign policy has already started, even before President Rouhani takes office. Officials from more than 40 countries are slated to attend his inauguration ceremony. Isn’t this a major breakthrough for him, while he hasn’t yet sworn in as the president? So, it sounds like the world is embracing Dr. Rouhani as a new president who has come to power with a slogan of moderation and constructive interaction with the world.
Of course the change which I expect is that we will not be hearing adventurous statements by the foreign ministry officials, we will not find our president being left with an empty hall while addressing the UN General Assembly, we will not find our president being booed in the Columbia University and we will not find our president being called a hawk by those who are the real hawks of our world today. Iran will be hosting dignitaries from all around the world, especially given that it has assumed the presidency of the Non-Aligned Movement, but I’m sure that the whole world, including the European nations, will come to reconcile their differences with us.