The West nervously grins as Iran ponders the future

Gains made by reformist candidates in Iran's recent elections need to be seen in the context of the country's revolutionary history, writes Alan Philps.

Nobel Peace prize winner Shirin Ebadi of Iran is tempering optimism after reformers made gains in recent parliamentary elections. Kacper Pempel / Reuters
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The exiled Iranian Nobel peace prize winner Shirin Ebadi has described her country as culturally ready for democracy, but still in the grip of a “totalitarian regime which is trying to impose its beliefs on the people”. Her words come as a cold shower after the high hopes prompted in the West at the trouncing of the hardliners in last month’s parliamentary election.

The vote has generally been seen as a positive result for Hassan Rouhani, who is labelled a reformist in the West. His list won a plurality in the parliament, and there were some notable humiliations for the so-called conservatives, who call themselves “principlists” on the grounds that they brook no compromise on the principles of the Islamic Republic.

These hardliners were swept away in the capital, Tehran, and the result of the vote for the Assembly of Experts, a body which will eventually choose the successor to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was even more stunning. Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, previously the uncompromising chair of the assembly, failed to secure re-election.

In his farewell speech to the assembly, Ayatollah Yazdi spoke of his fears that the rising reformists might seek to change the foundation of the Islamic Republic, in which ultimate authority is held by an Islamic jurist not by the people. Referring to Mr Rouhani’s negotiations with the United States and its allies, he said: “Do not become happy with the enemy’s smile.”

So who is right? Mrs Ebadi has good reason to look behind the democratic process at the unchanging power-holders of the deep state, the Revolutionary Guard, the domestic security services and the judiciary. Awarded the Nobel Prize in 2003 at a previous high tide in hopes for reform, she has not been able to return to Iran since 2009.

Her husband and daughter have been arrested, and the intelligence services organised a honey trap for her husband, videoed the result, and sentenced him to death by stoning for adultery in order to force him to denounce his wife. This incident is related by Mrs Ebadi in her new autobiography, Until We Are Free: My Fight for Human Rights in Iran. She is not going to be silenced.

Mrs Ebadi told the BBC that western countries should have insisted on progress in Iranian human rights as part of the nuclear deal signed last year. Instead of rushing to do business with Iran, European countries should increase the list of high-ranking Iranians subject to travel bans.

These positions may be praiseworthy, but they do not belong in the real world, one in which Mr Obama’s priority in the Middle East was to bring Iran’s nuclear programme within legal limits, not to change the regime in Tehran, a goal which many in Washington still hanker after.

One can see in the optimistic assessments of the Iranian elections a dose of wishful thinking: that the West’s cosying up to the regime of the mullahs, which was done for reasons of security and national interest, is in fact driving change at the heart of the Iranian system.

There may be a nugget of truth here, but we should be wary of turning a blind eye to history. The truth of Iranian history is that Mohammad Khatami, the reformist president who served from 1997 to 2005, has been erased from the public sphere: it is illegal to publish his name or picture, though his supporters got around this ban by displaying his clasped hands from a famous picture. The leaders of the opposition Green movement, including former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, who challenged the fraudulent result of the 2009 presidential election, are still under house arrest.

Tactical voting, rather than revolutionary fervour, seemed to be the guiding spirit of Iranian voters. The former regime insider Hashemi Rafsanjani, once seen as a corrupt oppressor of civil society, topped the vote for the Assembly of Experts. No doubt his newfound popularity was a means to keep the hardliners out, but it underlines the fluidity of Iranian politics. Without the discipline of formal parties, politicians drift between different currents and lists which makes the result of any election difficult to translate into a reliable assessment of the balance of power.

The labelling of politicians is even more difficult given that the centre of Iranian politics has shifted towards the conservative end since 2003. And the lens through which foreigners view Iran has also changed. By comparison with the harshness of the practice and rhetoric of ISIL and other Islamist factions, Iranian hardliners come to seem almost moderate.

None of that changes the reality of the Iranian system which is summed up by the analyst Karim Sadjadpour thus: “A limited democracy, wrapped in a military autocracy, inside a theocracy.” Voting allows the regime to display some flexibility, but the limits have hitherto been very clearly defined.

On that basis, Mr Rouhani will be wise not to bank on leading a popular movement to shake the foundations of the Islamic Republic. This is not his style in any case. His new thinking can be encapsulated in the idea that chanting “death to America” is a silly basis for the foreign policy of a country with a history going back several thousand years.

And as for the role of human rights in western policy, it has never stood up to the challenge of a real crisis, and the Syria conflict is causing it to decline on a daily basis. To reduce the level of violence, the United States has had to bow to the wishes of the autocratic Russia of Vladimir Putin. The European Union is entering into a legally suspect arrangement with the increasingly autocratic government of Turkey in order to stop the flow of migrants into Europe. Pragmatism is the order of the day, because the western countries’ ability to lead is ebbing away.

Ayatollah Yazdi may be worried about the smile on the face of America. The smile is actually a nervous grin.

Alan Philps is a commentator on global affairs

On Twitter @aphilps