Leader Development & Education for Sustained Peace Program: Cross-Cultural, Geopolitical & Regional Education

InReview – Iran’s Leadership – the growing rift

In late October, the Iranian parliament, dominated by conservatives and hard-liners, rejected President Hassan Rouhani’s nominee for science minister. The hard-liners argued that the nominee was “not fully committed to Islamic values.”

Commentators will oftentimes oversimplify another country’s leadership and government. It can be easier to understand another country vis-à-vis one’s own through the lens of liberal or conservative or fundamentalist. The issue arises when taking a closer look at a country’s internal dynamic, to reveal further complexity that is not vastly different from our own rifts in leadership.

Since Rouhani assumed office in June 2013, the rifts between the moderates and the hard-liners have deepened. Rouhani campaigned on restoring the economy, civil rights, and improving relations with the West. It was a promising development that someone like Rouhani was even able to run for President but it was clear then, as it is now, that the hard-liners and religious establishment would not let him move forward with drastic changes in governance. Furthermore, while many would describe Rouhani as a moderate, this might also be an oversimplification of his position and the nuance in what the president of the country needs to balance. Critics rightly point out “Iran has made scant progress in human rights” (Fox News). But in other ways, Rouhani has been pushing for incremental change.

In the summer of 2014, Rouhani urged the Iranian government to relax bans on use of the Internet, including Facebook and Twitter. The President is himself quite prolific on social media platforms. “Hassan Rouhani is Bringing Internet Freedoms Back to Iran, One Tweet at a Time”:

In May 2014, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani declared the Internet “an opportunity” and urged the Iranian government to relax current Web bans. Rouhani, who has a Twitter account — where he occasionally retweets pictures of Persian leopards — asked Iranians, “Why are we so nervous? Why don’t we trust our youth?” President Rouhani’s speech comes after four years of internet censorship following the disputed 2009-2010 elections and subsequent Green Revolution Movement, also known as the “Twitter Revolution.”

The revolution prompted then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to ban Facebook, Google, YouTube, and Twitter. However, Rouhani, who is perceived by most as being more moderate than his predecessor, has hinted that he may not agree with the current internet bans (one big hint is his Twitter account). After he was elected in 2013, Rouhani urged his cabinet to open their own Facebook pages.

Since, Facebook is banned in Iran, the pages were available through a proxy server, but they still caused some confusion.


In May 2014, Rouhani took another small step for internet freedom when he intervened in a dispute over the banning of WhatsApp, vetoing the Committee for Determining Criminal Web Content’s decision to outlaw the use of the app. Rouhani’s veto demonstrates a growing rift between the president’s more moderate policies and the wishes of other powerful Iranians, specifically Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.

Khamenei is thought to be more conservative on the issue of internet freedom, although, strangely enough, he also uses Twitter. Khamenei only has 54,000 followers compared to Rouhani’s 199 thousand, but maybe that’s to be expected from a man who wants to ban online chatting between men and women — it’s safe to say he isn’t a big fan of Tinder.


According to Reuters, Iranians say internet censorship has diminished somewhat so far, but internet connection is still patchy and VPN use is rampant. Journalists and internet activists continue to be jailed under the new Rouhani administration, and access to the internet may soon become more limited, as the purchase and use of VPN software was made illegal in May 2014.

Rouhani’s government has said it will use “smart filtering” to censor sites, so that the only pages blocked are those considered immoral. While this technique is supposed to ease some of current Web bans, the government says the smart filtering technology is still being perfected, and one has to wonder what possible criteria will be used to determine immorality on the internet. After all, you could probably make the case that many, many things on the internet are immoral.


More recently, Rouhani made another appeal but this time by urging “Iranian Universities to Open Up, Dismisses Spy Fears”:

President Hassan Rouhani called on 7 October for Iran’s universities to admit more foreign students and lecturers, dismissing conservatives’ fears that more interaction with the outside world would encourage espionage.

His remarks at Tehran University appeared to be a fresh riposte to hardliners in the Islamic Republic’s faction-ridden political leadership who have been waging a determined campaign against his policies of international engagement.

In a speech marking the start of the academic year broadcast live on state television, Rouhani urged the establishment of a university teaching in English and suggested Iranian academic life had much to gain from more international exposure.

“Some people say that if we have contact with the outside world, if our teachers go abroad and their professors come here, maybe someone will be a spy among them. Stop making excuses!” he said to audience applause.

“Even if I don’t have expertise in anything else, at least your president has expertise in national security,” said Rouhani, a relative moderate with a decades-long pedigree in senior government posts, including chief nuclear negotiator with major powers.


“I’m not saying let’s start from those places that are scary to some people,” he added, in an apparent reference to Western countries generally considered enemies since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. “I mean let’s just start with our neighbors.”

He added: “Let our students go abroad for a term. At least create one university that has English as the main language so that we can attract foreign students.”

Although successive Iranian governments have insisted they support free speech and welcome constructive opposition, liberal-minded students and academics have accused the authorities in practice of clamping down on dissent on campuses.


Rouhani has repeatedly clashed with conservatives in parliament and other state institutions – including the judiciary and elite Revolutionary Guards – who disagree with his conciliatory rhetoric, liberal approach to intellectual and social life at home and his decision to revive negotiations with the Western powers over Tehran’s disputed nuclear program.

Iranian students are allowed to study abroad but many use the opportunity to settle overseas. International educational exchanges involving the Islamic Republic are weighted towards Iranians studying overseas. Foreign students admitted to Iranian campuses tend to focus on religious studies.

(Reuters, emphasis added)

But as Rouhani is able to urge changes at home, there is no question that this mentality has resulted in a drastic shift in policies abroad, especially vis-à-vis the West. While there has been an increase in dialogue and diplomacy, discussions have yet to manifest into actions. Director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Haleh Esfandiari offers her expertise in “Interpreting Iran’s Mixed Messages”:

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, have been busy explaining their country’s policies in media interviews and meetings scheduled around the U.N. General Assembly opening. Their message has been mixed.

On the one hand, they seem to be hewing to the hard line laid down by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on the country’s nuclear program, relations with the U.S., and the problem of ISIS militants in Syria and Iraq. On the other hand, the two officials, particularly President Rouhani, have sounded notes of moderation and readiness for accommodation.

Consider: In remarks to media after his recent prostate surgery Ayatollah Khamenei described himself as “amused” by official U.S. comments on ISIS in Iraq and Syria. He dismissed the anti-ISIS coalition the U.S. has assembled as “hollow”; alleged that Washington wished to do in Iraq and Syria what it is doing in Pakistan (“bombing wherever they want”); and said it was an “honor” for Iran to have been excluded from a U.S.-sponsored conference on ISIS because Tehran wants no part in a “wrong collective task.” He also accused Secretary of State John Kerry of lying and said that Iran had rejected three invitations by senior American officials to discuss cooperation against ISIS ”because their hands are dirty.”

Mr. Rouhani and Mr. Zarif have echoed this dismissive tone, even if their comments are milder. In an interview with NBC’s Ann Curry, President Rouhani questioned U.S. motives in moving against ISIS; he called the U.S.-led coalition “ridiculous” and pooh-poohed the effectiveness of an air campaign. President Rouhani asserted that the U.S. is bringing together the very countries that had funded, supported and armed ISIS militants in the first place. He did not specifically endorse Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but both he and Mr. Zarif have said that ISIS could not be defeated without the Syrian government’s cooperation, and both have described Mr. Assad’s opponents as terrorists. As to prospects for better Iranian-U.S. relations, Mr. Rouhani suggested that this might occur not on his watch but under his successor or his successor’s successor.

Yet in a breakfast with journalists in New York on 23 September, President Rouhani seemed to adopt a different tone. He said that airstrikes against ISIS targets in Syria lacked “legal standing,“ but he did not press the point. (The Syrian government said that the U.S. had informed it of the intended airstrikes, making its official position more moderate than Iran’s.) President Rouhani also predicted that Iran-U.S. relations would change dramatically if a nuclear agreement is reached, and that things “will not go back to the past” even if an agreement is not reached.

He did not expect to speak with President Obama during this trip, Mr. Rouhani said, but he revealed that he had discussed many possible areas of bilateral collaboration during his telephone conversation with President Obama in New York last year–a conversation that Ayatollah Khamenei subsequently termed “inappropriate.”

These mixed messages suggest that the Iranian leadership is either split over relations with the United States and the handling of the ISIS crisis in Syria and Iraq, or that it hasn’t decided exactly which positions to adopt at a time of rapid and unpredictable change. We are either witnessing an Iranian president seeking room to pursue his own moderate inclinations on foreign-policy issues in the face of an inflexible, and suspicious, supreme leader, or the Iranian leadership is being pushed in one direction, and then another, by rapidly shifting winds.

(Wall Street Journal)

This is why it is imperative to understanding the internal dynamics within Iran’s leadership: to make expectations – especially with regard to the nuclear discussions – more realistic and mitigate inevitable disappointments. Saeed Kamali Dehghan, writing for the The Guardian expounds on the Rouhani’s balancing act between domestic progress and foreign influence in the context of Iran’s relations with the UK explaining “Iran’s Hassan Rouhani Has to Weigh Every Step at United Nations”:

Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, has to weigh up every step he takes as he visits the UN in New York, accommodating world leaders while not upsetting hardliners at home.

the 24 September meeting with the British prime minister, David Cameron, the first such encounter in decades, just added to the complications.

In Tehran, domestic repercussions of any potential statements he will make or meetings he will attend, can be costly. Hawks and fundamentalists, such as those in the Iranian parliament, will be circling like vultures to watch him slip.

In September 2013 in New York, the 65-year-old made a difficult choice and despite his own willingness decided not to commit to a historic handshake in the corridors of the UN headquarters with the US president, Barack Obama.

Instead, he opted for a less controversial, yet hugely significant, telephone conversation with the American leader. Still, he remembers well that he returned home to Tehran airport to protesters throwing eggs and shoes at him.

This time, the task is no less intricate. Rouhani has already met a number of world leaders, including France’s François Hollande and Austria’s Heinz Fischer. His meeting with Cameron marked a milestone as the first meeting between UK and Iranian leaders since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

In Iran, where suspicion is rife about Britain, that meeting will be watched closely with attention to the details.

Iranian hardliners have an extraordinary obsession with Britain (which they still consider “the old fox”) and approach it with a conspiratorial mindset. In their view, British hands are behind everything political in Tehran and the royal family still runs Westminster. Iranian conservatives have a suspicion towards Britain much deeper and stronger than towards the United States.

The British embassy in Tehran, which was shut down in 2011 following an attack by an angry mob, remains closed. Both sides have decided to reopen embassies but complications in Iran mean the UK mission is not fully open.

Iranians with dual British citizenship are also subject to scrutiny and a number of them are being held in jail, including Ghonceh Ghavami, a 25-year-old female University of London graduate who was arrested nearly three months ago for trying to enter sports stadiums with men.

Keyhan, an ultra-conservative Iranian newspaper whose director is appointed directly by the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, published an editorial on 24 September cautioning Rouhani about his meetings with the world leaders and a potential agreement with the west over Tehran’s nuclear programme.

Under the headline “The unfinished war”, the piece reminds its readers that the US and “England” – as Britain is usually called in the Iranian press – supported Baghdad in the eight-year war between Iraq and Iran in the 80s and still imposes sanctions on Tehran.

“The world’s imperialist faction [a familiar reference to Britain and the US] is aiming to bring the powerful and revolutionary Iran to its knees,” the article said.

However, Sadeq Zibakalam, a Tehran University professor, writing in the reformist Shargh daily on 24 September, called the Rouhani-Cameron meeting historic.


In Zibakalam’s view, Rouhani’s meeting with Cameron will also pave the way for his potential meeting with Obama. “With a flower, you can’t have a full spring but when a flower blossoms it means an end to the winter season,” he said.

Rouhani, meeting a group of American journalists and editors in New York on 23 September, also expressed hope for a permanent nuclear settlement between Tehran and the west.

“Without a doubt, reaching a final nuclear deal will expand our cooperation, and we can cooperate in various fields including restoring regional peace and stability and fighting against terrorism,” he said.


Rouhani also said a nuclear agreement would bring further opportunities of cooperation between Iran and the west.

(The Guardian)

Dehghan’s article highlights several fascinating points about Iran’s leadership and foreign policy. First, his opinion that “Iranian conservatives have a suspicion towards Britain much deeper and stronger than towards the United States,” shows the complexity of how to evaluate Iran’s behavior toward its allies and more importantly its enemies. There seems to be no end to the list of countries that Iran is not only suspicious of but also working to undermine. From the U.S. perspective, it seems that anti-American sentiment is the foundation of Iran’s foreign policy. From the Saudi perspective, Iran’s modus operandi is to bolster the Shia in the region. From the Israeli perspective, Iran will stop at nothing to destroy the Jewish state. Indeed, it is difficult to determine the order of which of Iran’s enemies take precedence over the other.

With this mind-boggling list of conflicts between Iran and other regional or global actors as a backdrop, the Wall Street Journal recently reported on how “U.S., Iran Relations Move to Détente” and the rippling effect of these developments within the fallout from the Syrian conflict:

The Obama administration and Iran, engaged in direct nuclear negotiations and facing a common threat from Islamic State militants, have moved into an effective state of détente over the past year, according to senior U.S. and Arab officials.

The shift could drastically alter the balance of power in the region, and risks alienating key U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates who are central to the coalition fighting Islamic State. Sunni Arab leaders view the threat posed by Shiite Iran as equal to or greater than that posed by the Sunni radical group Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

Israel contends the U.S. has weakened the terms of its negotiations with Iran and played down Tehran’s destabilizing role in the region.

Over the past decade, Washington and Tehran have engaged in fierce battles for influence and power in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Afghanistan fueled by the U.S. overthrow of Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein and the Arab Spring revolutions that began in late 2010. U.S. officials still say the option of military action remains on the table to thwart Iran’s nuclear program. But recent months have ushered in a change as the two countries have grown into alignment on a spectrum of causes, chief among them promoting peaceful political transitions in Baghdad and Kabul and pursuing military operations against Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria, according to these officials.

The Obama administration also has markedly softened its confrontational stance toward Iran’s most important nonstate allies, the Palestinian militant group Hamas and the Lebanese militant and political organization, Hezbollah. American diplomats, including Secretary of State John Kerry , negotiated with Hamas leaders through Turkish and Qatari intermediaries during cease-fire talks in July that were aimed at ending the Palestinian group’s rocket attacks on Israel, according to senior U.S. officials.

U.S. intelligence agencies have repeatedly tipped off Lebanese law-enforcement bodies close to Hezbollah about threats posed to Beirut’s government by Sunni extremist groups, including al Qaeda and its affiliate Nusra Front in Syria, Lebanese and U.S. officials said.

“This shows that although we see Turkey and Arab states as our closest allies, our interests and policies are converging with Iran’s,” said Vali Nasr, dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and a former Obama administration official. “This is a geostrategic reality at this moment, more than a conscious U.S. policy.”

Obama administration officials stressed they’re not directly coordinating their regional policies or the war against Islamic State with Iran. They also said pervasive U.S. economic sanctions remain in place on Tehran, Hamas and Hezbollah.

Still, these officials said the intensive negotiations the U.S. has pursued with Iran since last year on the nuclear issue could help stabilize the Mideast and have improved understanding.

“The world is clearly better off now than it would have been if the leaders on both sides had ignored this opening,” Wendy Sherman, the lead U.S. negotiator with Iran, said in late October.

Iranian officials, including President Hasan Rouhani, have said there could be more cooperation with the U.S. in the war on Islamic State, but only if a nuclear accord is reached.

Administration critics, including Israel and Arab states, see the White House as determined to seal a deal with Iran as a monument to President Barack Obama’s foreign policy record.

“The Iranian regime is revolutionary and can’t get too close to us. So I’d be wary of any rapprochement,” said Scott Modell, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “I think they are hell bent on pursuing a number of courses that run counter to U.S. interests.”

Iraq has been at the center of a regional proxy war between the U.S. and Iran since the George W. Bush administration invaded Baghdad in 2003.

Iran’s elite military unit, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, established and trained a network of Shiite militias that attacked U.S. and coalition troops stationed in Iraq over the past decade, according to U.S. defense officials. Tehran, according to U.S. officials, also introduced into Iraq the most dangerous kind of improvised explosive devices, the roadside bombs that the Pentagon says were the largest single cause of deaths among American servicemen who fought in the war.

Since the U.S. resumed military operations inside Iraq in August, however, the Revolutionary Guard, or IRGC, has explicitly ordered its local proxies not to target American military personnel conducting and coordinating attacks against Islamic State from bases around Baghdad and Iraq’s Kurdish region, according to U.S. officials who have tracked Iranian communications.

(…) The U.S. has also made it clear to Tehran that its stepped-up military strikes against Islamic State targets in Syria won’t be turned on forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, according to U.S. officials.

Mr. Assad is Iran’s closest Arab ally. And the Revolutionary Guard and Gen. Soleimani have mobilized Iranian military personnel and Lebanese and Iraqi Shiite militiamen to fight inside Syria in support of the Damascus regime. Any U.S. strikes on Mr. Assad’s security forces could end up hitting Iranian or Hezbollah soldiers and military advisers, sparking a broader conflict, U.S. and Arab officials said.

(…) The Obama administration’s indirect diplomatic engagement with Hamas has unnerved Israel and allied Arab states. Washington maintains a policy of no direct talks with the Palestinian group, which is designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. and European Union. But Mr. Kerry and other U.S. officials regularly conveyed messages to Hamas’s political chief, Khaled Meshaal, through Qatari and Turkish diplomats during cease-fire talks this summer.

Israeli and Arab officials argued this engagement strengthened Hamas’s profile at the expense of the moderate Palestinian leadership led by Mahmoud Abbas.

The regional truce playing out between Washington and Tehran is fragile and could easily be reversed, said U.S., Arab and Iranian officials.

The two sides have set a late November deadline to conclude a comprehensive agreement aimed at curtailing Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for an easing of Western sanctions. U.S. officials say the prospects for the accord remain only 50/50 and that tensions between the two sides could quickly ratchet up in the wake of a diplomatic failure.

(Wall Street Journal, emphasis added)

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