When Iran last held an election – four years ago, as its constitution demands – protests greeted the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmahdinejad which went on for days and even led to some expectation in the West that a long awaited “green revolution” might be at hand. The U.S., under its relatively new and apparently liberal president, played a careful role, keeping public comments low-key in order not to further inflame a clearly delicate situation. President Obama was clear that there was to be no US intervention, and he faced a predictable round of right-wing criticism for his temperance.
Yet there is a case for seeing Mr.Obama’s earlier restraint as a necessary factor in this year’s victory of a would-be reformer in Iran. Using the voting booth – something western audiences could sometimes be forgiven for thinking that Iran doesn’t possess – the Iranians have now given their presidency to Hassan Rouhani, a reform minded cleric.
Mr. Rouhani may seem an unlikely reformer, and there are those in Iran who certainly consider his new, reform mantle to be as yet untested. Indeed, the clue to his political stance lies more in the pragmatism which he embraces than any ideological commitment to reform. Nevertheless, this is as good as it can get for Iran, and Mr. Rouhani came to power on the strength of many of the voters who saw the 2009 election as a fraudulent steal. With both of his pragmatist predecessors – Rafsanjani and Khatami – weighing in to support him, and the late withdrawal of the only openly reformist candidate, no-one can doubt where Mr. Rouhani has drawn the majority of his astonishing support.
The new president has given much cause for optimism, despite the predictably downbeat comments of Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, hard-line leader of the region’s only nuclear power. What his election now offers, however, is a real challenge to the policy makers of the West, and in particular to Mr. Obama.
The hostility to Iran has always been led by America, and in Mr. Ahmahdinejad they had a suitably clownish opponent, easily subject to caricature. America’s attitude, however, has not been without its faults. In a new and devastating critique of the West’s attitude towards Iran, Peter Oborne and David Morrison charge the United States in particular with an unwonted hypocrisy in its dealings with the Islamic state, which reach back to the CIA-sponsored coup of 1957.
Oborne and Morrison’s book, “A Dangerous Delusion”, should be required reading for anyone wanting to understand the alternative view of the threat that Iran poses towards the West. The authors set out, passionately but in convincing detail, the case for Iran. A power that has abided by the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty despite the provocations and misrepresentations it has been subject to; an essentially peaceful nation which has – rarely for the region – never provoked a war since the end of the Second World War; an intelligent regional power which can justly feel threatened by the lead swinging of its nuclear neighbour, Israel. They point out the baselessness of accusations of nuclear weaponry levelled against Iran, whilst countries who have failed to sign up to the NPT to which Iran is a signatory – Israel, India, Pakistan – have continued to receive substantial US investment. In short, Iran is suffering from a caricature portrayal in the western media that is not born out by its actions.
Iran has entered a new era with the election of Mr. Rouhani. The wrongs of the 2009 election have been righted, and that earlier American caution has paid dividends. However, Iran can only engage practically with the West if there is a similar desire to engage in the West itself. A couple of years ago, Barack Obama might have seemed just the sort of president needed to ensure that such engagement could happen. His international liberalism has taken a few blows recently, but the Iranians have offered him a tremendous opportunity to re-shape the world polity in a positive and less dangerous direction.
With the civil war in Syria showing signs of leaking abroad, the need to have a flexible attitude towards Iran that is based on respect towards an ancient regional power rather than the neuroses of decades of hostile reaction, is as urgent as it has ever been. But it doesn’t just require the pragmatic skills of President Rouhani. It requires realism and a willingness to break out of the Washington box from Mr. Obama, and that is still far from assured.