[Photo: President Rouhani]
By Masuma Rahim
I followed the Iranian Presidential election in June with some interest, particularly as, this time there was no danger of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad being re-elected. I always failed to see why Ahmadinejad had much in the way of support, Iranian or otherwise – he was a provocative man whose refusal to negotiate with other nations led to his citizens experiencing significant suffering.
Under his leadership, oil exports plummeted by a third, inflation rose to over 30% and the cost of food increased by 43%. In addition, there were shortages of medicine and medical equipment. For many, life became increasingly grim while Ahmadinejad was at the helm. Frankly, it’s not surprising that there were protests following his victory in 2009. I cared nothing for his outbursts at the UN; nor for his tirades against the West and Israel. He was free to hold those opinions, but he was not free to provoke other nations if that provocation then made life more difficult for his electorate. Whatever your views on ‘the West’, political leaders have a duty to their own people. Ahmadinejad failed in that duty and ordinary Iranians suffered the consequences.
So I was pleased when Hassan Rouhani became President this year, winning a majority of the votes cast. Already, he has called for talks with the US, although he has (understandably) attached conditions to those talks. He has appointed females to his Cabinet and ordered the release of political prisoners, as well as speaking out against the media censorship so widespread in the Middle East. He is not perfect, of course – there is little dispute that Iran is funding the Assad regime and it remains to be seen whether he genuinely wants to discuss Iran’s nuclear programme or whether his agenda is rather different. Crucially, though, he appears to understand that the more forthright approach employed by his predecessor is unsustainable and will actively damage his people. Often, I thought Ahmadinejad’s antics were simply a means to gratify his own ego with no heed for the consequences; I’ve yet to get that sense from Rouhani.
Despite all this, I retain a certain wariness. I was a supporter of Mohammad Khatami but recall all too well the obstructions he faced in his attempts to achieve reform. It was Ahmadinejad who defeated him in 2005 and my fear is that Rouhani will face similar opposition from the more hard-line elements of the establishment; that he is being set up to fail and that in four years we will see a return to more conservative thinking in Iran. For the time being, however, he has four years in which to create a more stable country and one that is no longer a pariah on the international stage. I may be wary; I am also quietly hopeful.