By electing Rouhani—a friend of Rafsanjani, a moderate, and a reformer—as Ahmadinejad’s successor, Iran has placed itself at a difficult crossroads. It has made a political choice with complex dimensions. Perhaps it wanted to help itself end an extremely costly situation that it found has become too difficult to manage. Iran is, after all, placed in a difficult economic situation that also restrains its regional choices. Its war against the Syrian people in particular has caused severe losses, amounting to the billions of dollars, spent on funding a war waged by a tyrannical regime against a Muslim population. Additionally, there is the human cost of this war—grave by any standards. There is evidence that when the Free Syrian Army destroyed a military convoy in Ghouta, capturing 20 officers and soldiers, among them were 17 Iranians.
Rouhani’s election and his attempts to restore his country’s relations with the West, and the US in particular, raises a number of questions. It could appear that the Iranian leadership, or entities within it, decided to confront the changes in the region by changing its domestic and foreign policies after it found itself mired in problems it cannot solve.
Many will feel that America succeeded in pushing Iran into a confrontational position with the Arabs and the majority of the Muslim world, involving Iran for the first time in a Sunni–Shi’ite struggle, starting with its direct involvement in the Syrian war. One has to also look at the involvement of Hezbollah, which has exposed itself as a fundamentalist group and has gone into a foreign country and killed Arabs and Muslims in defense of an abhorrent sectarian regime.
Questions can be asked about whether the Iranian leadership has discovered that it would lose its strategic balance if it lost Syria, a pivotal base beyond its borders. It lacks the ability to retain Syria in the face of major powers—the powers who decide the type and dimensions of the conflict in Syria, from which they also benefit.
Iran itself is increasingly drowning in the mighty waves, enduring financial and human losses, without being able to inflict any harm on the US or Israel or even kill a single solider from their armies.
Has Iran realized that the conflict being waged in and against Syria is altering the region’s strategic picture and will have a severe impact on the Iranian regime, exhausting it economically and isolating it socially, forcing it to adapt its policies and decisions?
Iran’s potential stances could help establish better conditions for a solution to the Syrian crisis, allowing it to have a say in the solution before it becomes a purely American–Russian one, with no room for regional and Arab states. That will likely happen if Iran envisions a role along with the two major superpowers—the US and Russia—who are working towards a political solution. If Iran agrees on the eradication of chemical weapons, as several entities and observers predict, it would be the country’s first step in this direction.
Until recently, Iran’s image did not reflect the impact of the Khatami Administration’s reformative policies, because at that time the military and security services—which are deeply enmeshed with the power structure—undermined him and likened his presidency to a summer cloud in the Islamic Republic’s lifespan.
Years later, however, it has become obvious years that Khatami’s policies have left a lasting mark on society and made a significant contribution towards the eruption of mass demonstrations against suspected vote-rigging in the presidential elections of 2009.
Many will wonder if Khatami’s experience can be repeated under Rouhani—in the sense that the military–security apparatus will again succeed in sabotaging his anticipated reformative approach—leaving Iran unchanged in confronting the violent storms in the region. However, some might speculate that the supreme leader’s overt criticism of Rouhani’s recent visit to the US are the first signs of his failure.
Rouhani’s election raises all of these questions and potential outcomes. Iran’s complex and interlinked problems advance all of these possibilities. However, this does not necessarily mean that developments will lead to rational choices being made.
The return of sectarian totalitarianism exposes its indifference to reality and its reliance on its own ideological fantasies, which it defends strongly. But Iran will not remain isolated from the changes sweeping the region.
Rouhani’s election could be the beginning of an Iranian endeavor to establish a secure place for itself in a profoundly changing world, a bid to survive the storms that swept away regimes as powerful as that of Iran. Those same storms have been trying to demolish the Syrian government for more than two years, fighting, with Iran’s help, an unarmed nation, but failing to oppress or break it.
Iran should read these signs and start to understand their meaning and take the necessary measures to meet the requirements for abandoning many of its positions and policies. If Rouhani’s administration is a repeat of Khatami’s experience, it might be said that history is repeating itself. However, the first time will be described as a disaster, the second a mockery.