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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Don’t Confuse the People of Iran with Its Islamic Regime

Filed under: Iran

“We are offering our hand to the world,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani declared when the nuclear agreement between his country and the superpowers came into force on January 16, 2016. Two years later, the rest of the world – or at least the United States, Israel, and France – is feeling anxious.  The Islamic Republic of Iran appears, for the moment, to be the biggest winner of this agreement and also of the war that has been destroying Syria for the past six years. On its way out of its isolation, Iran has succeeded in creating a pro-Shiite axis composed of Tehran, Baghdad, Damascus, and Beirut. The Revolutionary Guards have built military bases just several dozens of kilometers from Israel’s northern frontier. This expansion is not only a cause for concern for the Jewish state but also for the Arab countries, and the Gulf states in particular, with which Iran is contending for the leadership of the Arab world.

The Iranian regime has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in reinforcing the terror organizations Hizbullah and Hamas. The Iranian people have been cruelly deprived of these funds.

“Not for Hizbullah, and not for Gaza! We want the money for Iran!” demonstrators shouted as they marched through the streets of Iran last December. As this movement protested the high cost of living, Iranian women defied the Islamic regime by removing their veils in public.

Paradoxically, while Iran is currently one of the most aggressive countries in the Middle East, at the same time it is the civilian society that is coming closest to following a democratic model in the region. This situation has fostered many illusions of a possible “reform” of the Islamic regime. Formerly, the Obama administration, along with certain European governments, placed their hopes of change in Hassan Rouhani, the president of the Islamic Republic, who was elected in 2013. However, this situation requires some clarification.

After the “Bad Cop,” Here Comes the “Good Cop”

With his barely perceptible, enigmatic smile under his turban, Hassan Rouhani presents a more pleasant countenance than the previous president of the Islamic Republic, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, elected in 2005, whose perennial jacket was a reminder of his past as leader of the Basij, the regime’s extremist and violent militia. Yet the two men represent opposite sides of the same coin.

When it came to discussions on the nuclear issue, Ahmadinejad was chosen by Supreme Leader Khamenei to raise the stakes with the superpowers. It was a good choice. With his many verbal provocations and fanatical ideology, he played his role of specter to perfection, to the extent that after him his successor effortlessly appeared as a “moderate.” After eight years of undercover arm wrestling, the centrifuges are now enriching uranium at full speed, and Iran has reached its nuclear threshold. It is therefore now up to Rouhani – elected, as noted, in 2013 – to perfect a process that does not aim to acquire an atomic weapon in the short term, but plays upon the fear that Iran inspires in order to negotiate his country’s return to the society of nations, with the status of a great regional power. After the “bad cop,” it is now the “good cop’s” turn. From this point of view, the war in Syria has been a heavenly gift. The fight against the common enemy, ISIS, has become Iran’s passport to respectability, not only in the eyes of the Russians but also of the West.

Rouhani is the man of the moment. He is the one who conducted the initial negotiations on the nuclear issue with the Europeans in 2003 and 2004. Unlike Ahmadinejad, who had never left the country before he became president, Rouhani was already familiar with the outside world. He had studied in the United Kingdom, and he speaks English and several other foreign languages fluently. As a pragmatist, aware of the complex relations between the various regional forces, he understood that in the chaos of the Middle East, the Islamic Republic has its own card to play. However, this does not make him the reformer that he is often perceived to be in the West.

The Insider

Educated at the seminary in Qom, the “Rome” of the Shiite Islamic world, by the future Ayatollah Khomeini in the 1960s, Hassan Rouhani is a pure product of the Iranian Islamic regime. The foundation of this regime in 1979 marked the beginning of an Islamist wave that has only continued to spread in various forms, becoming more and more menacing. As it still battles against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, notably through its support of Hizbullah and other terrorist organizations, Iran remains a destabilizing influence in the Middle East.  When he regularly reaffirms, in the French media, his rejection of Israel’s right to exist, even though this has been recognized by the United Nations since 1947, Rouhani is showing his fidelity to the fundamental and most problematic tenets of the Islamic Republic. We must remember that he is the result of a presidential election where the candidates were specially selected, just like all the other elections in Iran. The candidacy of a woman, or a member of a minority group such as an Arab, Kurd, or even a Jew, Christian, or Bahai, is out of the question. Worse than that, you will never find a single “reformer” among any of the candidates. Who remembers Mir-Hossein Mousavi? Though he was ahead during the presidential polls in 2009, his election was annulled in favor of outgoing President Ahmadinejad even though the results were evident inside the ballot boxes. This act of force led to a popular revolt not seen since the birth of the Islamic Republic in 1979.

“Where is my vote?” shouted the younger generation as they marched en masse through the streets of Iranian towns.

There Has Not Been a Tehran Spring

Nine years later, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, now sick and feeble, is still under house arrest, as is his second-in-command, Mehdi Karroubi, and the other party leaders from the 2009 election. Since Rouhani was first elected in 2013, on average two people have been executed per day in Iran. Often these include “social deviants,” drug addicts, homosexuals, or women convicted of adultery. They are hanged in public in order to terrorize the population. This sad figure places Iran at the top of the list of countries using the death penalty, behind only China, which is 20 times more populated. It is true that Rouhani is far from possessing all of the necessary powers in Iran, where the “conservatives” do not make his work easy for him. Nevertheless, whatever Rouhani’s intentions are, he has so far been less of a reformer than Khatami, whose eight-year presidency in 1997-2005 was marked by a “Tehran Spring” in terms of the arts and freedom of the press. However, these reforms were violently repressed by the ultraconservatives, empowered by Ahmadinejad. Yet while we should not be deceived by Rouhani, we must not give up on Iranian civilian society, where a fragile flame continues to glow in the darkness of the Middle East.

Iranian Hope

Out of all of the larger countries in the region, Iran is, without any doubt, the one that is most likely to transition toward democracy. Its population, 70 percent of which are city-dwellers, is young, dynamic, and very well educated. Its residents enjoy an average of 12 years of schooling. This includes the women, even though, according to Islamic tenets, they are still officially considered inferior to men. They no longer believe in the official hate speech against America and Israel, respectively known as the “Big Satan” and the “Little Satan.” In private, many Iranians live without observing the archaic regulations and customs imposed on them by the police. They are also the descendants of an ancient nation, founded by Cyrus the Great, who liberated the Hebrews from Babylon and enacted a text similar to the Declaration of the Rights of Man 2,500 years ago. Throughout its long history, Iran has preserved a very strong identity that sets it apart from the surrounding Arab world.

Demands for Liberty

When it adopted Shiite Islam as its official religion, Persia (as Iran used to be known) affirmed its rejection of the dominant Sunni version of Islam, which had been imposed on it by the Arab conquest. Then, at the time of its constitutional revolution in 1906, Iran became the first country in Asia to open a parliament. During the 1930s, Reza Shah, founder of the Pahlavi dynasty, inspired by Ataturk, president of Turkey, prohibited the wearing of veils and imposed a nonclerical state. This modernization, continued by his son Mohammed Reza Shah by force, was swept away by the Islamic Revolution in 1979. However, the country’s new rulers could not totally extirpate the love of freedom, as it silently continues to make inroads between the folds of Iranian civilian society, which has become detached from the illusions of the Islamic Revolution. In this regard the Iranian people are similar to the Hungarians and Czechs who, even before the fall of the Berlin Wall, had mentally turned the page of “real, existing socialism.”

Should the demand for liberty rising among the Iranian people push the democratic powers into a compromise with the Islamic regime? Not at all. There will never be peace in the Middle East while the Islamic regime, which sponsors terrorism and encourages verbal and physical violence, continues to exist. It is vital to put a stop to Iranian military expansionism. If the Revolutionary Guards were to retreat from Syria, and Hizbullah were to become weakened in Lebanon, this would greatly encourage those in Iran who hope to see their country prosper and live in peace with the rest of the world.