Interview: Rouhani, Quo Vadis? By Katarzyna Morton

The recent win of Rouhani in the Irani presidential election surprised many. Our committee member Katarzyna Morton spoke with three Iranians on the win and the future of Iran. 

Maryam Sohrabi* is currently working as a researcher.

Rouhani’s victory: Surprise for the Supreme Leader or his master plan?
– Well, I never thought Rouhani stood a chance. When it happened I was suddenly happy and hopeful. But one of my friends told me ‘Believe it or not, Rouhani was the person I was going for all along because that was the person the government wanted’. Why? Because when you have someone like Rouhani in power, you are able to keep the system in Iran stable. If you had hard-liners like Mohsen Rezaee or Saeed Jalili you will have people discontent. Perhaps it was Khamenei’s plan all along, as my friend said. But who knows? I guess we will never know.

Faranak Salehi and Shima Zare are both students and members of the Green Movement. They are certain that this election was designed by the religious leaders:

– I think Ayatollah Khomeini wanted Rouhani, that the leaders were really afraid of people. Everything in Iran is really expensive now and as you know, people do revolutions when they are hungry and some of our people are very close to that at this moment. We are also very tired of many other problems like sanctions, international relations and the way that we were being looked at in Ahmadinejad’s time. If someone like Jalili had been elected all these problems would become even more severe and both Iranian people and other countries might have been determined that a big change would be required in Iran, like a revolution or a war. We think Khamenei looked at Rouhani as a ‘safety valve’ for the regime. Therefore, Islamic leaders in Iran encouraged everyone to vote, they were saying: ‘even if you don’t believe in Islamic Republic regime come and vote’. Strategically speaking, they put a very radical person next to him. And as it was in last elections when people voted for Mousavi because they didn’t want Ahmadinejad to win, this time they voted for Rouhani so Jalili would not be elected. Nevertheless, in my opinion this time it was a game, says Faranak Salehi.

Do you think that the plan of Khamenei simply fell into place?
– Yes, this is what I think. I have actually never seen Khamenei happier, she adds.

Who voted and who did not: The rumor about the boycotts.

The voter turnout in Iran’s 11th presidential election was quite high, 72.7% of eligible voters. There were voices among young Iranians to boycott the elections, but the majority went to polls. Who actually voted?

– I think you can categorize Iranian people in several groups. I am in the group that does not believe that the Islamic Republic is a right choice for Iran and for me voting is not an option, because it helps the system, says Faranak Salehi and adds:

– Another group consists of people who do believe in the Islamic Republic, but they simply did not believe in the current government (Mahmoud Ahmadinejad government). They think that voting can indeed change and improve the country. The third group contains people who do not support a religious country but still vote hoping for change, even a little change. And I am sure they all are very happy with the outcome. I am personally rather skeptical about the future, but my opinion is not representing the voice of all Iranian people. In fact, it is probably very different from the majority.

Were they wrong giving their vote?
– This is a hard question. We do not want to judge people who participated in these elections and we want to be happy for their happiness. Four years ago we also voted, we had a chance to get rid of Ahmadinejad. This year he is already gone as it is his second term.  Taking into account the big election fraud of 2009, our friends that have been imprisoned, some that have even gotten killed, it was really, really hard to even think of voting, Shima Zarei says.

– We barely know who Mr. Hassan Rouhani is. Mousavi was also someone from this regime who was not our first choice, but at least was clearly a good man with more charisma and who was not on Khamenei’s side. Rouhani officially used Khameni’s and Rafsanjani’s quotes about himself in his election advert campaigns. He had and still has a key role in the Islamic Republic of Iran. We think it is just a game that the government has learnt to play well to bring people to vote every four years. We cannot look at it like a political participation, but just as taking part in the game that they have designed, Farank Salehi adds.

Iran_2009Maryam Sohrabi’s view on the issue favors those who actually did vote. She thinks Iranians made the best out of the situation:

– A lot of people were boycotting but ended up doing the complete opposite as the polls were closing. The fact that many people voted does not mean they are content with whom they voted for, I think people misinterpret voting with accepting the situation.  Some in the West say, voting does not matter, as Khamenei is the one in control, but I argue the contrary. I was there when Khatami was president and I was there when Ahmadinejad took over. I saw the difference; I saw the way the civil liberties in Iran changed, so to say that Rouhani will make zero difference is unjust. Just because people are celebrating does not mean they think Rouhani is Superman, as someone put it. They are celebrating because they are tired of Ahmadinejad. Some people misinterpret this. These celebrations were not about democracy; they were about a little bit of change for the better. If they can be happy for two, three days, so be it.

Will Rouhani deliver?
– The point is, Rouhani has won, and will he be able to deliver on his promises. I think he means what he says and that he wants to do it, but does it mean that he is going to do it? Well, let’s look at Obama for a second. Obama made a lot of promises, and how many of them did he stand by? Not many. I think the case with Rouhani is the same thing. I think most Iranians are not naïve, they know that Rouhani is talking, but the fact that he is talking brings hope. What I mean by ‘not naïve’ is when we look at Khatami’s time and the 1999 students’ protests, he ended up on the side of the Supreme Leader when things got rough. People in Iran remember this and are realistic about Rouhani. Nevertheless, I think having Rouhani in power is hopeful, not only for Iranians, but also with dealing with the international community.  For one thing, Rouhani is not going to make controversial comments like Ahmadinejad, he is going to make Iran to look like a rational state, as demonstrated with Khatami, and I think that is what Iran really needs right now, Maryam Sohrabi says.

It seems that Rouhani does not stir up harsh feelings even in dedicated supporters of the Green Movement. Faranak Salehi and Shima Zarei both agree on one thing:

– He is a rational person, and close to Rafsanjani, who is a very clever man. But it is hard to say, you know, before this elections there was no Rouhani. No one really knows him. We are staying positive. We do not believe it will happen, but somehow we hope it will. I am guessing it will be sort of like during Khatami’s time, so they could cover all things that Ahmadinejad did wrong. There is something to thank him for, he did a lot of problems to Islamic Republic and perhaps it was enough for the leaders, too. They allowed Iranians to chose Rouhani and make them 10% happier. This is the way to sustain the Islamic Republic.

Why Iran is not seeking a revolution

Maryam Sohrabi believes that evolution is the key:

– The system that Khomeini put in Iran is virtually coup-proof and he did it for a reason, because of Mossadegh in 1953, because of the way the Shah was toppled in 1979, because the systems were easy to topple. But if you remove Khamenei, you have the Guardian Council, the IRGC (Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps), and so forth, there is a whole protection policy that surrounds the system of governance. And let us be honest, which of these Arab Spring countries got something good out of their revolutions? Iran has already had a revolution and even if we have another one, Iranians are afraid that someone worse will come. I think Iranians are right, they know better, they have experienced it. Iranians understand that evolution is the key and this is why they put so much faith in Rouhani.

Faranak and Shima advocate in a similar manner:

– You know I think there is a misunderstanding concerning the Green Movement. We have never wanted a revolution, we took to the streets as demos. We meant to be peaceful and demand reforms. We went to streets every day, normally from 5 till 7 and had also silent protests. Iranian Green Movement was totally different from Arab Spring, it was a civil movement. I can imagine that Arabic revolutions are rather more similar to what we have had during the revolution 1979. But we have learned from lessons of our history, you never know what will you have next and will that person be better. We have no leader, no one has enough strength. In 1979 when people followed Ayatollah Khomeini, they had someone they believe in, even during Green Movement times we did not have a faith in Mousavi, he was someone who was better than no one. We backed him because even after elections he stayed on our side, and in fact we didn’t agree with everything he was saying, but we appreciated that someone was finally with us, Shima Zarei says. 

– My father has voted for Islamic Republic though he is not a believer, because he was sick of Shah, and he believed that the man of God will not lie to him as Shah did. Now it is hard to believe to anyone…  In fact the majority of Iranian people are religious people in their heart even if they do not practice Islam, but some of them feel betrayed, Faranak Salehi adds.

Politics towards West

Maryam Sohrabi argues that the harsh policies of the Islamic Republic towards the US is a reaction to mildly humiliating operations that the so called West persuaded towards Iran in the past:

– Iran is not against America or the American people. The Iranian regime is against its government and let’s be honest, I do not blame them for it. Look at what they did to Iran in 1953, the way they backed the Shah in 1979, and then there is all the post-revolution stuff: they shoot down an Iran Air passenger plane in 1988 and they do not even apologise and make it seem like it was Iran’s fault. That sort of thing arouses angry sentiment and distrust of the West.

Faranak Saleho is representing a view that challenges the Iranian leaders:

– If they want to protect Iran from USA they do not need to do this that way. Why that way? To me, it looks as if the government needed to hate West. Every day of my life I heard that today it is a very critical moment for Iran referring to tense relations with USA. Foundation of Islamic Republic is hatred to America. They could protect us in a friendly way, in a political way. Be diplomatic. Look at Russia, they can defend their country in a clever way, without being enemy with others.

Green goes purple.

Rouhani has got the support of the 36.7 million people out of 50 millions of Iranians eligible to vote. Ayatollah Khamenei appears to understand this as the vote of confidence towards the Islamic Republic. That number includes many supporters of the Green Movement that became Rouhani fans, seeking for a positive change and hoping for his good intentions. Some still remained skeptical. Many allowed themselves for a dose of enthusiasm and happiness. But deep inside everyone stays cautious and looking forward to what is going to happen. Within this the question: What is the future of the Green Movement leaders who are remaining under the home arrest?
– People say that Rouhani might help them. But we also seek for patience, because he is just starting his term and no one wants to really push him, Shima Zarei says.

Maryam Sohrabi relates to the Green Movement leaders while concluding:

– It was hard for me to believe that the guy who calls for the freeing of political prisoners, the freeing of Mousavi and Karroubi, could win. We should not underestimate politics in Iran, whether it was a grand plan of Khamenei all along, God knows. Nevertheless, it is a hopeful time in Iran and expect to see some changes.

* All names in this article were changed by the editorial office at the request of the interviewees.

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