As an Iranian, I share the hopes and aspirations of millions of my compatriots for that day when my homeland will once again lead the region in the quest for peace and stability, as it did before the clerical regime took power. In this respect, the much-anticipated address of Mr. Hassan Rouhani to the United Nations was a welcome change of tone from the paranoid ravings of his predecessor at the same podium.
But as leaders and diplomats parse Mr. Rouhani’s words for hidden messages and deeper meanings, my experience suggests that what he did not say is more important than what he did.
In 2009, when the severely flawed presidential elections of Iran spurred millions of citizens to the streets in protest, the same theocratic regime Mr. Rouhani today represents showed its real face by use of brute force: murders, arrests, and beatings of hundreds of my fellow Iranians who simply dared to exercise their freedom of speech and express what they wanted: an honest and accountable government.
In departing Tehran for New York this week, Mr. Rouhani, the new face of the world’s only theocratic totalitarian government, said it was his intention to show “Iran’s real face” to the world, and his overtures of “constructive interaction” raised interest near and far.
In his own remarks, U.S. President Barack Obama said: “I believe the diplomatic path should be tested.”
As the speeches concluded, the time for that testing begins, and those who listened carefully to Rouhani’s speech might have cause to be wary: twice since the late 1990s, the world has seen two allegedly pragmatic or reform-oriented Iranian cleric-leaders speak of taking a moderate path towards diplomacy only to be vetoed by the man who really rules Iran: supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
While the supreme cleric has reportedly authorized Mr. Rouhani to launch a “charm offensive” in New York, back in Tehran those closest to Khamenei insist that not a single facet has changed in the regime’s long-held position; a revolutionary ideology and the central question of the nuclear portfolio. Instead, the supreme cleric has tentatively authorized an approach based on ‘heroic flexibility,’ a newly coined terminology in shi’a diplomacy, which is hopefully not rooted in taqi’yah, or religious dissimulation.
So, as with the two previous presidential harbingers of new thinking – Rafsanjani and Khatami – who were in fact unable to move the nation away from the theocratic vitriol that holds Iran and Iranians hostage – the proof of pragmatism and moderation from any Iranian president is yet to be revealed.
Meanwhile, for ordinary Iranian citizens, there are more immediate grounds on which the seriousness of Mr. Rouhani’s overtures may be judged. Assuming that Mr. Rouhani has the best of intentions, there are several concrete – and less existentially challenging than the nuclear question – ways in which he can demonstrate to the international community that he is a man who can deliver:
First, the regime should be challenged to release of all political prisoners. While the symbolic release of 80 prisoners prior to Rouhani’s flight to New York is a step in the right direction, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights will confirm the actual number of political prisoners in Iran, are in the thousands. Together with a broad-reaching amnesty for these languishing souls, the regime should immediately stop its persecution of religious and ethnic minorities and renounce its own widespread practices of torture and execution.
Second, the regime should be challenged to enact into law the fundamental protection of individual rights that are implied in the Islamist constitution, but are nowhere specified by statute. In 2005, Mr. Rouhani’s predecessor, Mohammed Khatami, attempted to pass some such law only to be rejected by hardline clerics loyal the supreme leader. In particular, women in Iran suffer disproportionately–while Article 20 of the Islamist constitution speaks to the notion of gender equality, the systematic abuse of Iranian women and their rights tells another story. If Mr. Rouhani is able to empower the courts in this way, Iranians and the outside world that cares for their welfare will no longer be hostage to personalities that come and go, but rather know that an institutionalized judicial system allows all Iranians access to an open courtroom.
Third, the government should usher in a new era of accountability in Iran, specifically where public funds are concerned. My compatriots, especially the young, today endure catastrophic unemployment, in concert with the bitter sting of inflation now soaring above 40 percent. At the same time, billions of dollars are funneled to dubious ’causes’ and mischief beyond Iran’s borders, both in Syria and throughout the region. If Mr. Rouhani claims a mandate for change, that must include change in the way state funds are misappropriated or the disregard for grand corruption widespread among the regime’s ‘dear-hearts.’
Of course achieving even one of these goals by the clerical regime is not as simple as it may sound, but they are all reasonable demands on any government that promises and which is expected to keep its word.
Whether he is a reformer of simply a messenger, with an impressive degree of theater, Mr. Rouhani has opened a door: the question now is whether anything will pass through that opening. My long, intimate history with Iran, and now in the loyal opposition, leaves me with very low expectations of Mr. Rouhani’s presidency, despite cautious optimistim in most media.
Everyone who reads this article must understand this above all else: My compatriots in Iran tell me daily how hungry they are for real, deeper change that the new, smiling presidential cleric hinted at throughout his campaign public relations tour. If he is able to deliver real and meaningful change to the people of Iran, coming to terms with the P5+1 nuclear matters will be easy.