Rouhani Reminiscent Of Khatami Administration

Harking back to the more liberal and open pre-Ahmadinejad era, the election of moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani as president of Iran promises to restart progress in the country’s diplomatic ties with the West.

al-monitor Hassan Rouhani speaks with a Reuters correspondent during an interview in Tehran, Feb. 6, 2005.  Photo by REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi.

Topics covered

reform, iran

Aug 11, 2013

The commotion some people made regarding the doctorate held by new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was quite remarkable. Opposing media outlets raised doubts that he holds a doctorate from Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland, while the issue came under official and semi-official scrutiny. The doctorate — proven valid by a statement posted on the official website of the British university — holds a special symbolic significance. Iran’s acculturation with the West, in addition to its subsequent political connotations, brings back to memory the propositions of former President Mohammad Khatami and reminds us of his ruling days. However, the Khatami phase is different to some extent from the one that Rouhani is heading today. According to the ruling institution in Iran, Rouhani’s project seems to be an edited version of the former president’s project.

Khatami’s two presidential terms between 1997 and 2005 were not just a matter of success of the reformist trend over the conservative one. It can be said that this dual classification constitutes a point of convergence between both camps. There is an interpretation for the Khatami era that more closely resembles reality. It states that the two terms constituted an attempt at change within the ruling establishment.

This interpretation comes and goes depending on the current circumstances of the country, and it was internally and externally marketed at the onset of the first mandate of the reformist president. However, following the Green Revolution in 2009, and with the widening rift between the reformists and conservatives in terms of elites and bases, many held back from using this interpretation.

During the first two years of Khatami’s first term, Iranian society witnessed significant openness in terms of social and cultural freedoms, with the emergence of increased popular participation in political life. This was accompanied by Khatami’s call for communication with the West in 1998, giving his initiative a cultural aspect. He was known for reiterating the need for “cultural dialogue” — a call that went against an emerging global inclination with the rising popularity of neoconservatives in the United States and the emergence of al-Qaeda in the wake of the Nairobi and Dar es Salaam bombings in the same year. Then, a large number of reformists came out victorious in the parliamentary and municipal elections in 1999 and 2000. As a result of the leniency shown by Tehran, Washington and the European capitals did not impose any additional sanctions on it. Instead, 1999 was the year when the US ban on Iranian medicines, agricultural products and civil aircraft spare parts was lifted. The following year, Washington allowed the import of carpets and some food supplies from Iran. Both countries were flying a kite, but it seemed that neither of them developed an ongoing strategy to deal with the other. Their relationship was rather marked by cautious dynamism, and each country moved its pawns based on the initiatives of the other.

However, the September 11 attacks and the subsequent US steps ended the cautious phase of touching base. The series of steps began with the classification of Iran as part of the axis of evil and ended with Washington’s quest to establish a “New Middle East.” Internally, this was preceded by limitations that were imposed on Khatami’s reforms that increased with US fury. Consequently, the security grip in Iran became tighter following the new challenges that jeopardized the very existence of the Islamist regime, with the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq and the closing in on Iran amid an emerging imperial project. This was coupled with Washington’s decision to asphyxiate Iran economically by preventing the countries along the Caspian Sea from entering into agreements with Iran on extending pipelines to transfer oil within its territories. Consequently, losses worth billions of dollars were incurred in Iran, but this did not affect Iranian economic growth rates that reached 5.8% between 2000 and 2003 and exceeded 6.5% between 2003 and 2004. 

Nevertheless, the consequences of the policy of reform and openness adopted by Khatami, despite their positive effects on the economy and the internal social action, seemed to lack the necessary sensibility toward the foreign challenges that reached unprecedented peaks during the era of an extreme rightist US administration. Moreover, the policy appeared weak, thus pushing many observers to firmly assume that the real management of the foreign battles was carried out by entities outside the presidential circle and from within the military and security circles surrounding the supreme guide. With the increasing gap between the internal and external needs, and with the supreme guide and the surrounding circles’ priority of strategic and national security issues, the page of reformists was turned and Ahmadinejad took the stage as president, challenging international pressures and stashing Khatami’s reforms in the drawers of oblivion.

However, President Ahmadinejad's policy also came to an end, and it was no longer feasible to follow his approach for the years to come. Leaving the internal situation to simmer and adversely confronting the foreign countries has serious consequences. The Iranian leadership was well-aware of this. Perhaps the 2009 events were a lesson for both the leadership and its opponents. Rouhani’s smooth arrival to power, with the support of Khatami and the other reformists is enough proof that the Iranian leadership did not wish to ignite the internal situation. By approving Rouhani's election, the Iranian leadership met the reformists halfway — for instance, in his speech in 2011, Khatami had explicitly called for overcoming the 2009 confrontations. Meanwhile, some other leaders are still waiting for it to make compromises that suit them — as 2009 presidential candidates Mir Hussein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi are still under house arrest.

In short, Rouhani's election represents a more sophisticated version of Khatami's policy from within the ruling institution and its acknowledgment of a malfunction that needs to be addressed. It is also a novice attempt to reach balance between the domestic and foreign requirements; Rouhani's recent speech clearly highlighted this inclination. Indeed, his speech was not riddled with ideological concepts, as was the habit of his predecessor Ahmedinejad, nor did it limit Rouhani's vision to a platonic view [addressed to the] cultural elitist system, as Khatami did in the past.

His speech was closer to a pragmatic and flexible perception of the relationship with the international community, without being lenient about what the regime perceives as constant principles in national security — specifically the nuclear program — and foreign policy.

The new Iranian president is proof that the regime is trying to grasp the historic moments that the region is living and keep up with the major changes sweeping neighboring countries, which both require a wider room for maneuvering. Finally, [the election of Rouhani] aims at relieving the domestic arena and redrawing the map of Iran's foreign relations in such a way that distinguishes between a friend, a foe, an impartial party and an ally. This map ought to be read comprehensively and dealt with on that basis.

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More from  Rabih Barakat