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Monday, December 4, 2023

Tehran’s new face on same old murky policies

by Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor

© AP Images
False hope: Iranians welcome their new President-elect

If anyone seriously believes that Iran’s President-elect Hassan Rouhani will be empowered to make a difference, they’re dreaming. The media refers to this conservative Khomeini loyalist cleric as a reformist or a moderate. When compared with Mahmoud Ahmadinajad, whose bordering on lunatic, then yes. But it’s naïve in the extreme to suppose that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, whose iron grip over the Iranian people has endured since 1989, would permit a man with liberal persuasions to even run for office.

In reality, anyone with the potential of being a populist rival to Khamenei, such as former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, were excluded from the race by the Guardian Council’s vetting committee, along with candidates from the genuinely reformist Green Party, which goes to show that the poll lacked legitimacy. Out of 680 candidates who registered, only eight were approved to run.

Frankly, I’m amazed at the effusive reaction to Rouhani’s triumph. The UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon offered his congratulations, Britain’s former Justice Minister Jack Straw says he’s a man with whom the UK can do business. Vladimir Putin sent the new President a message of confidence that Rouhani would promote the prosperity of a friendly Iran and further strengthen Russian-Iranian relations. Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leaders have also sent him a congratulatory missive expressing their wish for improved ties. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia wishes “greater progress and prosperity for the people of the brotherly Islamic Republic of Iran” at a time when Saudi-Iranian relations are at an all time low over Syria.

I get that phrases used in diplomatic protocol shouldn’t necessarily be taken seriously. But let’s get something straight. There is nothing brotherly about Iran from the perspective of Gulf States as I’ve highlighted time and time again in my columns, while strongly urging Gulf leaders to cut diplomatic and trade relations with Tehran and expand the GCC’s military capacity to defend our lands against Iran’s territorial and ideological ambitions.

Brothers don’t steal from each other, as Iran did when in November 1971 it forcibly grabbed three UAE islands which until today it refuses to give back. And Tehran’s plotting to overthrow the Bahraini monarchy shows that it can’t be considered a friend by any stretch of the imagination. So, when I read that the GCC seeks better relations with its Persian neighbour all because the man who will shortly hold the title of President is considered to be a reasonable man, my heart sank.

We should not permit the ayatollahs to pull the wool over our eyes and neither should the Iranian people who’ve been celebrating in the streets. Make no mistake! The old guard is still in charge and has cleverly consolidated its power with a crafty PR coup. Ahmadinejad was unpopular, hot-headed and unstable. Rouhani is well-educated, well-travelled, well-connected in diplomatic circles and charismatic. He’s tapped into the pulse of the public – currently angered over surging inflation, high unemployment and a freefalling currency - and knows how to craft his rhetoric to suit. But whoever lands the title ‘President’ knows that it’s largely cosmetic when it comes to issues that matter. Rouhani will serve as a valve to reduce the tension in a pressure cooker of discontent at home and anti-Iranian sentiment abroad. He’s ignited false hopes and is giving the world the fake impression that Iran is poised to turn a new page.

Whether or not Hassan Rouhani is seen as a breath of fresh air in an oppressive country that stifles personal freedom and discriminates against non-Shi’ite minorities is neither here nor there. He’s a proficient diplomat, making all the right noises, promising nuclear transparency and steps to reduce tension with Western powers - which is all very well, but can he deliver? The answer to that is well known. With all the will in the world, he will have little say over Iranian foreign policy which is strictly the province of the Supreme Leader – and as recent history has taught us, anyone who challenges that authority is gone.

Rouhani will be free to change the tone of his dealings but not the substance. He may be more amenable than Ahmadinejad to dialogue with the West on Iran’s nuclear file, but the decision to cease uranium enrichment isn’t his to make, even if he were disposed to do so. In fact, he’s known to be proud of his nation’s technological achievements. He is keen to get economically crippling UN, US and EU sanctions lifted, but unless he gets the go ahead from his master to make concessions, that aspiration is dead in the water.

The President-elect says he wants improved relations with the US and Saudi Arabia. The real test will be his stance on Syria. Flowery words will get him nowhere as long as Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Iran’s proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah, are flouting the Arab League and the majority of United Nations member states by fighting on the side of a pariah engaged in the destruction of his own country.

In the final analysis, the Iranian leadership is undeserving of our congratulations and certainly doesn’t warrant diplomatic niceties from our leaders as long as it persists in killing our true brothers and sisters in Syria – and neither does its partner in crime, Russia, that keeps Bashar Al Assad’s forces supplied with missiles and vetoes anti-regime sanctions in the UN Security Council. In the meantime, let’s not be willing dupes to the new guy’s sweet words that can’t be backed-up with action. In many ways Rouhani is more dangerous than his predecessor. Ahmadinejad wore his aggression and hostility on his sleeve; whereas Iran’s new president could emerge as the Great Deceiver. I can only appeal to GCC member states to remain alert.

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