Iran and the West: Is a new beginning possible?

An Iranian woman passes by a caricatured image of American Statue of Liberty
An Iranian woman passes by a caricatured image of American Statue of Liberty

Iran’s new leadership stares at a momentous opportunity to make a fresh start – both at home and in the country’s engagement with the world

By Aijaz Zaka Syed

Iran finds itself in the media spotlight for all the right reasons, for a change. The smooth and event-free presidential elections in June surprised many, including the Iran ‘experts’ in the West. This time around the breathless excitement that had marked the international media coverage in the last presidential elections had been missing, probably because the West couldn’t clearly identify the ‘dissidents’ or ‘reformists’ who could challenge and take on the regime. There had been no protests roiling the streets of Tehran either, presenting a cause celebre to be readily embraced and championed by the ‘international community.’

Hassan Rouhani is not the first Iranian leader to have been “democratically elected” though. Except for the 2009 election that was fought violently and bitterly in the streets of Iran, the country has conducted successive and largely peaceful elections. And although these carefully calibrated and vetted polls under the watchful gaze of the Guardian Council have come to be accepted by the majority of Iranian voters, they have been dismissed by Western observers as ‘dubious and staged.’

That is hardly surprising, given the vilification the Islamic republic has been subjected to since the 1979 Revolution which, in turn, has contributed to the defiant and isolationist approach and posturing of the Islamic republic.

The past few years have easily been the most arduous and difficult in Iran’s history as unprecedented international financial and political sanctions– driven by the US and its allies – have crippled the oil-driven economy, trade and everything else, not to mention the untold hardship inflicted on its people. Besides, Iran has lived perpetually under the shadow of an imminent Israeli attack with Washington’s direct or indirect support and blessing.

If the country has managed to hang on in the face of great opposition and odds, it is largely because of the enduring spirit of its proud and resilient people. The culture of self-reliance and indigenous solutions that the country has evolved as a response to punitive western sanctions and the long and disastrous war with Saddam Hussain’s Iraq have also helped.

One had hoped things would change with the ascent of an unassuming and unconventional politician at the head of the government in Tehran eight years ago. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad earned himself many an ardent admirer and built his own constituency in and outside Iran with his understated style of leadership and his constant defiance of the ‘Great Satan’.

However, in his preoccupation and confrontation with the West, the Iran leader squandered an historic opportunity – and the people’s mandate – to turn the country around and guide it to a new dawn of hope at a time of great promise and possibilities. Unfortunately, the two tenures of the former academic saw him forever obsess over Iran’s nuclear ambitions at the expense of everything else at a time when there were far more serious challenges demanding his attention. Of course, this would not have been possible without the express blessings of Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader.

The people of Iran have paid a monumental price for this magnificent obsession. The Iranian foreign policy has come to be a single-point, one-dimensional agenda characterized by endless and pointless nuclear negotiations and international inspections that were never aimed at resolving anything – except keeping Iran down.

Of course, as a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran enjoys an inalienable right to peaceful nuclear power. It is also right in challenging the double standards and hypocrisy of world powers in denying nuclear energy to the rest of the world while they sit on the piles of nuclear weapons.

One can also see that the question of nuclear power has become a matter of national prestige and pride for most Iranians, including those who are opposed to the Islamists. Many feel that, given the history of Israeli reign of terror and what happened to Iraq and others in the neighborhood at the hands of its friends, one can probably understand if Iran eventually went nuclear although it continues to insist that its aspirations are purely peaceful in nature.

But one single issue, however important, does not and cannot define a mature and farsighted nation and people and dictate their whole existence. It is a great injustice to an enterprising and accomplished people with a rich past. There is something called ‘hikma’ (wisdom). Nations, as individuals, have to make temporary compromises for long-term goals and interests. Confrontation in international affairs seldom works and does more harm than good.

Iran’s new leader stares, as Ahmadinejad did eight years ago, at a momentous opportunity to make a fresh start – both at home and in the country’s engagement with the world. As a scholar and member of the religious establishment as well as a former military commander and nuclear negotiator known for his pragmatism, President Rouhani is uniquely placed – and qualified – to give his nation a new and positive direction.

For far too long has Iran remained isolated and cut off from the rest of the world largely because of its refusal to accept Western diktats. In recent years, it has also found itself dangerously sequestered in its own neighborhood. Its Arab and Muslim neighbors have been understandably concerned over its nuclear and military ambitions. The frequent military exercises and muscle-flexing in the Gulf waters and the talk of a coming West vs Iran war haven’t helped either.

Since the 2003 Iraq war, both Western powers and Al-Qaeda extremists have preyed on the virtually non-existent Sunni-Shia rift to fuel the so-called Arab-Persian jostling for power across the region – from Syria to Lebanon to Bahrain. Iran’s support to a bloodthirsty Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, ignoring his continuing persecution of his people, has only added to the tensions.

A more affirmative and wise leadership in Tehran may not put an end to all this. But it can go a long way in repairing the country’s relations with its immediate neighbors and the rest of the world and help restore peace and harmony in the volatile region. Iran needs the support of its Arab and Muslim neighbors in the face of challenges posed by world powers.

The warm and enthusiastic response from Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Pakistan to Rouhani’s election, therefore, augurs well for the Middle East. The new Iran leader’s talk of “moderation winning over extremism” and his recent public relations blitzkrieg at the United Nations has also struck a positive chord in the West.

It’s time for Iran to engage the world and play a positive role in the region. And to do so, it doesn’t have to give in to anyone or give up its pride and self-respect. It is past time the country broke free out of its mold and shackles for the sake of its people and their future.

Like many other Muslim countries, the majority of Iranians today are young. Most of them born after the revolution, they yearn for meaningful change and their rightful place in the world. Iran’s leaders cannot keep this lot forever waiting or indifferent to the winds of change sweeping the region. In the change of guard in Tehran, there is a chance for both Iran and the world community to make a new beginning after years of missed opportunities. Is Rouhani up to the challenge?

The writer is a commentator on Middle East and South Asian affairs and
Editor of Caravan.
Email: [email protected]


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