Iran’s new President, Hassan Rouhani, has initiated a possibly constructive dialogue with President Obama. Rouhani’s release of 11 political prisoners, his office’s sending of an unprecedented Rosh Hashana greeting to the world’s Jewish community, his renunciation of any desire to produce nuclear weapons, and his suggestion that he and President Obama might talk one on one during the opening sessions of the United Nations General Assembly this week, do indeed seem promising. The White House has signaled that it is interested, though at writing the specifics are not yet clear.
Rouhani was elected on June 14 of this year in an election in which no women, and nobody critical of the political system and especially the controlling role of the senior Shiite clergy, was even allowed to run. Even the preferred candidate of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was eliminated from the race by clerical authorities led by Supreme Religious Leader Ali Khamenei.
Iran is being badly damaged by a ferocious regime of international sanctions and by internal policies that are less and less popular. Particularly hard-hitting are prohibitions on U.S. and European banks doing business with their Iranian counterparts. Within Iran, “neo-liberal” privatization policies that favor business over ordinary workers and poorer people are a source of increasing dissention.
Progressive Iranians warn that it is a mistake to consider Rouhani to be a full fledged reformer, but nevertheless welcome, especially, the freeing of political prisoners, including civil rights attorney Nasrin Sotoudeh. However, they warn that there are many more innocent people still incarcerated, including bus drivers’ union leader Reza Shahabi and other labor, student and human rights activists, and call for their release also.
After the overthrow of Shah Reza Palevi in 1979, which was carried out by an alliance of leftists (including the Tudeh, Iran’s communist party), the Shia Muslim mosques and others, the theologically dominated regime which came out on top turned on its former allies and carried out mass executions. Almost the whole of the Tudeh leadership was arrested and most were killed. It would appear that President Rouhani was implicated in those acts. In 1999 he had called for a sharp crackdown on student protests.
Other left-wing activists as well as members of the Bahai, Sunni and Sufi religious communities came in for similar rough treatment.
More recently, Rouhani was Iran’s chief negotiator on the issue of its development of nuclear power capability, and at the time of his election was the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, a post he had held for 16 years.
The current civil war in Syria is a source of worry for the Iranian leadership. The conservative theocratic government of Saudi Arabia is Sunni and not Shiite like Iran, and also sees Iran as a commercial rival in the oil and natural gas business. Wealthy Saudis and the Saudi government have been open handed in their financial support for rebels who are trying to oust president Basher Assad of Syria, and this generosity has been extended to extremist “Salafi” elements connected to Al Qaeda. Iran has been supporting Assad, but it is in the interests of both the Syrian and Iranian people (and for that matter, of the people of the whole world, including the United States) to deescalate the Syria conflict and promote a negotiated solution.
For a couple of years, right wing politicians in Israel have been pushing for the U.S. to take, or at least threaten, military action against Iran for that country’s supposed plans to develop atomic weapons. Although the claim that Iran has been developing such weapons (as opposed to peaceful generation of nuclear power) is questionable, and also hypocritical considering the Israeli and U.S. nuclear arsenals, it has been used to bolster the argument that underlies the tough sanctions imposed on Iran by the United States and the European Union. So it was predictable that major figures in Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netenyahu’s government would pooh pooh the Iranian peace feeler. The Israelis also complain about the link between Iran and the militant Hizbolla organization in Southern Lebanon, with which they have had armed clashes.