Iranian voters demand open society despite Trump’s negativity
Isolating Iran empowers ultra-conservatives and confirm their view of US as ‘Great Satan’
Supporters of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani celebrate after he won the presidential election on May 20th, 2017 in Tehran, Iran. Photograph: Majid Saeedi/Getty Images
The landslide victory of reformist Hassan Rouhani in Iran’s presidential election coincided with the visit to Riyadh by US president Donald Trump, who firmly allied himself with Sunni Saudi Arabia in its struggle with Shia Iran for regional influence.
Trump praised the autocratic Saudi rulers, signed a $110 billion (€97.8 billion) arms deal with the kingdom, and adopted Saudi rhetoric blaming Iran for regional violence and global terrorism, although radical Sunni terrorists profess extreme Saudi Wahhabi religious ideology.
In response to Trump’s stand, US-Iranian author and commentator Trita Parsi wrote, “Just when Iranians voted overwhelmingly for openness and engagement with [the] world, Trump clenched his fist and responded by calling for Iran’s isolation.”
Isolating and sanctioning Iran can only empower ultra-conservative clerics, Republican Guard commanders and wealthy merchants, and confirm their contention the US is the “Great Satan”.
They oppose Rouhani’s efforts to liberalise social and political life, build Iran’s economy and continue the country’s international outreach with the aim of securing foreign trade and investment in the oil and industrial sectors, which have deteriorated due to decades of sanctions.
A solid majority of Iranians voted for Rouhani, while Tehranis gave him a boost by voting all of the reformist candidates on to the city’s municipal council. Iranians have demanded a more open society, revival of the arts and cafe life, respect for human and civil rights and an end to imprisonment of dissidents and executions.
During his campaign, Rouhani adopted these issues, defended gender equality and called for access to information and an end to political interference by the military and judiciary. By speaking out, he took on the mantle of failed but notable reformers, former president Mohamed Khatami, and former prime minister and presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi.
During his first term (2013-17), Rouhani honoured his pledge to conclude an agreement with the US under President Barack Obama, and with Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany to curb Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for the lifting of sanctions.
Although sanctions relief has been partial and ordinary Iranians have not benefitted, 57 per cent of voters cast their ballots for Rouhani in the expectation he will deliver change, essential goods, jobs and economic advancement.
If Rouhani fails, his opponents could regain the presidency in four years’ time, restoring their control of the unelected clerical establishment and the elected executive and legislative branches of government responsible for domestic and external policy.
While Rouhani will have to play off competing factions on Iran’s domestic front to implement his agenda, he and the conservatives could join forces to apply leverage to restrain Trump and force him to come to terms with Tehran. Europe, which has tripled trade with Iran, and Asia, Iran’s chief customer for oil, can be expected to object to Trump’s uncompromising posture.
Iran can become a spoiler in the US war against the Taliban and Islamic State in Afghanistan. Without Iranian-supported Iraqi Shia militias, the US-sponsored Iraqi army cannot drive Islamic State from Mosul in northern Iraq. Shia militias must be deployed to oust Islamic State from the Hawija area west of Mosul and Deir al-Zor in eastern Syria.
While the US relies on Syrian Kurdish forces, with 50,000 fighters, to oust Islamic State from the Syrian city of Raqqa, the Kurds are not capable of taking on the group in Deir al-Zor as well. Once Islamic State has been contained or eliminated, Shia militias will also have to join the battle against al-Qaeda and drive it from bases in Syria.
Finally, Iraq’s Shia militias have already assumed key roles on the Iraqi political scene, dominated by the pro-Iranian Shia fundamentalist government installed in 2003 by Washington.