August 4, 2013

Hassan Rouhani is celebrating his inauguration this weekend as the new president of Iran. We here in the US for the most part misunderstand the actual powers granted to the president in Iran by the ruling mullahs, but there is little doubt that Rouhani is a less divisive and flamboyant figure than Ahmadinejad. His presidency represents the best chance the US has had in years to re-establish diplomatic channels in a critical area.

While there are an influential group of both American and Israeli neo-cons who have a vested interest in keeping Iran as the irrational nuke-crazy bad actor in the region, Iranian journalist Kourosh Ziabari sees this as potentially much more positive:

To be honest with you, I should confess that the June 14 presidential elections 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.

Of course, pretty words don't always lead to action, as we all know, so how Rouhani does act in terms of normalizing Iran's relationship with the us and making the necessary assurances about the nuclear program remains to be seen. But as the Leveretts argue that the US needs to do some work too:

Just as unwillingness to deal with the Islamic Republic as a system warps Western diplomacy with Iran, it also undermines the Western position in the Middle East more broadly. For this system's animating idea-integrating Islamist governance and participatory politics-appeals not just in Iran, but to Muslim societies across the region. Iran is the only place where this idea has had sustained, concrete expression, but it is what Middle Eastern Muslims choose every time they are allowed to vote on their political future.

America and its European partners disdain coming to terms with this reality, in Iran and elsewhere. Disingenuous rhetoric notwithstanding, Washington still prefers secular authoritarianism-as in its support for the Egyptian coup, a naked effort to restore Mubarakism without Mubarak. Alternatively, the United States works with Saudi Arabia to promote anti-Iranian-and, in the end, anti-American) takfeeri militants, as in Libya and Syria, witlessly disregarding the inevitably negative consequences for its own security. Either way, American policy systematically undermines prospects for moderate and popularly legitimated political Islamism to emerge in Sunni-majority Arab states.

Today, with Middle Eastern publics increasingly mobilised and their opinions mattering more than ever, this amounts to strategic suicide for America and its allies. To begin recovering its regional position, Washington must come to terms with the aspirations of Middle Eastern Muslims for participatory Islamist governance. And that can only start by accepting the uniquely Islamist and fiercely independent system bequeathed by Iran's 1979 revolution-the legitimacy of which is powerfully affirmed by Rouhani's accession.

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