Will Hassan Rohani make a difference?
Championed as a political moderate and winning a landslide victory with 51% of the vote, Iran’s new leader Hassan Rohani and his electoral victory on June 14th has sent scholars of international relations and politicians into a frenzied overdrive as they all attempt to dissect what his election will mean for the future of Iran and Iran’s relations with others.
It is no secret that the West were not big fans of Iran’s previous leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, otherwise known as the supreme leader, so will Rohani fare much better?
Early indications suggest – not really. Despite the almost instant international celebration that followed Rohani’s election, more and more scholars are now arguing that Rohani will make very little difference to the Iranian political system and Iranian desire for power.
Writing for Reuters, Ian Bremmer warns that very little will change in Iran as “all major decisions on foreign policy go through the Ayatollah.” Taking this gloomy prediction one step further, last week’s Economist dedicates a whole page to Rohani and the future of Iran concluding: “When Persian power is on the rise, it is not the time to back away from the Middle East.”
By far the most damning, however, was a tweet by Daily Telegraph’s Tim Stanley on the topic of Iran as discussed on BBC Question Time. Tweeting: “Melanie [Phillips] is right – Iran is indeed a massive material and existential threat #bbqt”, Stanley represents the view held by the large majority of the West that Iran is a threat to international stability.
But why does the West fear Iran and its political leaders so much? With criticisms of a system that prevents its leader from implementing much change – a criticism, it should be noted, that could easily be made of the US political system – and the growing nuclear capability of the country. Iran has faced heavy fines and sanctions as a direct result of Western unease – but why is this?
One significant reason is culture. Championing its secular modernization process, the West simply cannot understand a political culture that combines the political with the religious. International relations scholars such as Scott Thomas and William Cavanaugh have written much on the fear that religion instills in modern states in the West, and one can see in many of the damning reports on Iran the complete unease scholars have with the idea that a religious leader has political power.
Yet the cultural misunderstandings pale in comparison to the attitude of the West toward the nuclear development of any state. This is a key reason why countries such as the US have focused on Iran in the past. Simply put, Iran is failing to do what it is told.
Much of US policy towards Iran has been punitive and the justification for this has been shrouded within the US policy of Global Zero and the desire to eliminate nuclear weapons from the international system.
In this story line, the United States have been able to paint themselves as the heroes, single handedly attempting to make the world a better place whilst Iran has been branded a villain for refusing to give up its nuclear program.
This, however, is an unfair assessment of the situation. Indeed, since 2002 the United States have explicitly declared that any pursuit of a nuclear programme by Iran will lead to conflict, political or otherwise. A recent speech from vice president Joe Biden for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) highlights the ferocity with which the US has pursued the elimination of weapons in Iran.
In his speech, Biden said: “We have a shared strategic commitment. Let me make clear what that commitment is: It is to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Period. End of discussion. Prevent – not contain – prevent.”
With such force directed at its sovereignty, it is perhaps unsurprising that Iran has decided it is in its best interest to maintain a nuclear programme.
To answer the question of whether or not Hassan Rohani will make a difference to the political and international situation in Iran, one could argue that sadly he won’t. Yes, Bremmer may be right that domestically Rohani will fail to make a difference because he is essentially powerless under the influence of the Ayatollah. More significantly, however, Rohani will not be able to make a difference if the rest of the world won’t let him.