From the outside, President Hassan Rouhani’s efforts to end Iran’s international isolation and moderate its domestic policies appear deeply troubled. Each month brings news of a fresh spate of arrests and hardline attacks against both Rouhani’s negotiating team and the new policies he claimed would be fundamental to his stewardship of Iran.
But inside the country, political elites from across the spectrum say they are still confident that Rouhani will deliver change, that he is already making important incremental changes that tend not to grab the headlines but will move things forward at the institutional level.
“This spirit of hope is already making life easier for everyone,” Mohammad Moghaddam, director of the International Affairs Division of the Institute for Compilation and Publication of Imam Khomeini’s Works, told IranWire. Like many, Moghaddam said the government should continue to take the small, cautious steps that make tangible differences on the ground. “Only then will progress be irreversible,” he said.
The Patient Reformists
A reformist political activist, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, said his camp still faces serious restrictions, from the lingering hardline grip that effectively bars reformists from running newspapers and communicating with the Iranian people, through to appointments to senior positions within the Rouhani administration.
“As long as we are convinced president Rouhani aims to open up the political scene and provide better conditions for political participation,” he said, most reformists are committed to supporting the government. He believes “the government is on track” but needs to set other priorities.
Despite their share in Rouhani’s electoral victory, the activist said the reformists are still viewed with a high level of skepticism by the conservative establishment that ultimately still controls the most important levers of power in Iran’s Islamic system, including the judiciary, state media, and the security forces. “In some ways, they are more afraid of us at the moment than they were over the past two or three years,” the activist said.
After eight years of uncontested control of the country’s administration, conservatives are eager to retain their influence and are pushing back against the centrist forces that Rouhani has appointed. This friction is apparent throughout multiple sectors, making even small changes a battleground in a larger game of political influence.
Moderation, One University at a Time
Higher education has emerged as one of the most sensitive areas. Minister of Science, Research and Technology Reza Faraji Dana has been taking careful steps to de-securitize and revitalize the academic climate in Iran’s universities. The controversial Chancellor of Tehran University, Farhad Rahbar, has been ordered out of office, news that students celebrated by spontaneously distributing sweets on campus
Far-right conservatives are keeping their eye on Faraji Dana’s policies, nervous of the potential for social criticism and dissent coming out of Iran’s vibrant universities. After trying to bring Iran’s million-strong body of students under their control through gender segregation policies, quotas in numerous academic disciplines, and a campaign of barring politically-active students from study, they will now have to witness the appointment of more moderate university officials.
While change at the higher level of university administration will take time, especially given the diffuse, case-by-case manner in which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government sought to reshape higher education, students say they already see concrete improvements since Rouhani came to power.
Vahid Abedini, a PhD student at Tarbiat Modarres University Tehran, told IranWire, “many students who were expelled from university in recent years are now allowed to return and continue their studies.” He said a number of lecturers and professors who were barred from teaching under Ahmadinejad have taken up their positions once again.
Rouhani Asks Academics, Journalists For Support
When President Rouhani addressed the presidents of Iran’s universities in February, he asked them to speak out in support of the Geneva nuclear agreement his diplomats had brokered. “Why is it that a number of semi-literates speak up [while] our university professors and our university elite speak privately? Why don’t they enter the scene?” he said.
What went unsaid, but that Rouhani is certainly conscious of, is that in order for university professors to be more outspoken, they will need to feel protected against warnings and intimidations by the security apparatus.
Rouhani also recently encouraged journalists to take a leading role in exposing and fighting corruption. While the allowable discourse in Iran’s media landscape has indeed widened up, the judiciary continues to crack down on media outlets. Because the stakes are particularly high when it comes to liberalizing the press and ending restrictions on the internet, this area will likely remain the most contested, and perhaps the slowest to accommodate meaningful change.
Unless the government takes tangible steps to implement legal protection for journalists they will continue to feel “defenseless”, as journalist Mashallah Shamsolvaezin puts it.
The Economy First, But Nuclear Diplomacy Before That
When it comes to the economy, the Rouhani administration is mindful that it must deliver immediate improvements. “We have to keep in mind that the majority of Rouhani voters had economic demands,” said the reform activist.
Mehdi Behkish, vice chairman and secretary general of Iran’s International Chamber of Commerce, told IranWire the main tasks for the government will be to control inflation, work to have sanctions lifted, and facilitate deregulation that will attract foreign direct investment. “The government is particularly doing well with regards to the first two points,” Behkish said. The efforts regarding the sanctions regime are proceeding well and inflation is decreasing “with good speed.”
The larger tasks—of safeguarding the interests of the private sector and restructuring large-scale manufacturing—loom. In order to be in the position to take forward these economic challenges, Rouhani’s government needs major achievements on the foreign front and has chosen a ‘foreign policy first’ strategy.
Mohammad Ali Sobhani, former Iranian ambassador to Lebanon and Jordan, said he is optimistic about the outcome of nuclear talks and believes that a comprehensive deal with the P5+1 will be reached.
“As soon as this deal is achieved, it will strengthen the government to a point where it can introduce bolder economic, social and political reforms on the domestic front,” Sobhani said to IranWire. He believes that a nuclear deal will be crucial to any real improvements Rouhani seeks to undertake domestically. “The stronger the system feels, the less restrictive it will be,” he said.
Although change is happening in the most incremental way, amidst the headlines that show many setbacks and embarrassments for the new administration, it is important to bear in mind the view from Tehran, where an array of officials argue things are moving forward, as slowly and cautiously as they must.
Adnan Tabatabai is a Berlin-based political analyst and consultant on Iran affairs. He holds assigned lecturships at the Heinrich Heine University of Duesseldorf and the Humboldt University of Berlin and works as a project manager on media development and cooperation in North Africa and West Asia with the Berlin-based NGO Media in Cooperation and Transition.