Contrasts and not contradictions mark the Rouhani era

Change in Iran

Even though it was expected that Hassan Rouhani would eventually draw “red lines” with respect to Iran’s internal politics, he has done so much sooner than expected.

Speaking in Tehran during the annual commemoration of Sacred Defence Week, Mr Rouhani explained that the Iranian armed forces have never interfered in politics and that Iran has never been a military regime.

Mr Rouhani’s words were meant to clarify his previous comments about the relationship between the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) and his government.

He is expected to do plenty more explaining during his visit to the United States this week. He kicks off a round of appointments in America this afternoon when he will attend the opening session of the UN General Assembly. He will deliver a speech to the UN later today and will address a nuclear disarmament conference and foreign ministers of the Non-Aligned Movement tomorrow.

Delivering a firm message wrapped in a soft tone, the president said last week that the IRGC “should be far from political affiliations ... because its place is higher than these partisan games and currents. It should not be attached to a side or party.”

The Revolutionary Guard, he emphasised, “should belong to the entire nation, because if a day comes when the unity of the nation is needed, [what] will bring the entire country onto the field under the banner of Islam is the [IRGC]”.

The message made it clear that Mr Rouhani was intending to avoid any tension while maintaining the policies of his regime – the “Wilayet Al Faqih” – at the heart of which lies the IRGC.

Of course, the president isn’t new to the complex rules of the political game.

He’s been closely associated with regime since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, and served as the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council for 16 years.

He understands where and how the IRGC can be addressed and how far he can go in his comments and criticism.

However, anyone trying to understand Mr Rouhani’s red lines shouldn’t consider his approach as a sign of rupture within the regime.

It should rather be seen as his willingness to defuse any potential mines that might blow out his objective of getting his country out of the situation created by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, his predecessor.

Less than 24 hours after Mr Rouhani delivered his speech, many started questioning whether the president’s call on the IRGC to step back from politics might ignite a fresh political standoff.

As debate raged over the president’s stance, the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, received the IRGC high command and clearly said that politics wasn’t their business: “The Revolutionary Guard should know what its task is to guard. It is not necessary for it to act as a guard on the political scene, but it should know the political scene,” Mr Khamenei said, as he reminded the IRGC commanders about the importance of knowing and understanding all political groups and keeping an eye on those who are aiming to harm the revolution and the Islamic republic.

It might be noted that Mr Khamenei’s praise for the new diplomacy, which he called “the heroic flexibility”, could also be the reason behind his remarks on the IRGC.

Commenting about Iranian politics, a former ambassador to Tehran said: “Iranian politics resembles a Persian carpet; it might be full of shapes and drawings, but everything is made to be in its place; different colours should be read as contrast rather than contradiction,” he noted.

It might be logical to suggest that the regime in Iran is considering the need for a break from the past, especially at a time when not only the entire region is weary of confrontation, but the US and the West are also exhausted. This might also help explain the reason behind the exchange of messages between all parties.

Moreover, it’s almost clear to all parties that no one entity can prevail. Now the primary concern is that there are still many pressing issues to address, including Syria, the nuclear programme and Israel. They all need time to be discussed, and solved, which is not an easy task.

The upcoming meetings in New York might be an opportunity for such a breakthrough; this is what many in Tehran believe.

Soothing mood music is filling the air in the US, and those waiting to see Mr Rouhani and Barack Obama together, in what might be described as “coincidence” meeting, think that such an encounter might change many things in the world of politics. That may, however, be investing too heavily in the likelihood of the pair meeting.

Ali Hashem is Tehran bureau chief for Lebanese satellite television channel Al Mayadeen News and contributor to Al Monitor

On Twitter: @alihashem_tv