The Blog

The New Iranian President - A Reformer, Moderator or Radical?

Iran is at a major crossroad. There is a growing middleclass, which is educated and wealthy, but also allergic to religion. Islam has become a hate-word for many, representing repression, lack of freedom and imposition of anti-modern values.

Hassan Rohani is the new president of Iran. He won a surprise victory against the divided conservative block, which has dominated the country for decades. His victory depicts the hopes and aspirations of the masses of Iranians who want to see political reform in their country. The majority has voted for Rohani's agenda for change and friendship. They have signed up to his promise of inclusion and transparency. They are sick and tired of the puritanical conservative rule. Can Rohani deliver his promises? The previous reformist president Khatami did not succeed against the extraordinary control of the unelected supreme spiritual leader of the country. Everyone is asking, how will it be different under Rohani? Hasn't he set himself up for certain failure?

The Iran of today has fundamentally changed from the Iran of Ayatollah Khomeini. It was the disgraceful legacy of the Shah, Musaddiq and their Western allies that catapulted Khomeini into the leadership of the Iranian revolution that brought the clerics to power. Iranians were sick and tired of the corruption of their leaders, the vicious Savak secret police, and the bullying of the Western countries. People from all walks of life, saw in Khomeini the prospect of freedom, prosperity, and even a saviour. Can Rohani be another saviour for Iran?

Khomeini's legacy in Iran is the formation of a theocratic state, where the clerics have the central role in the politics and guardianship of the country. He was its Ruhullah ('spirit of God') and the supreme leader. He did challenge the world's leading nations and their hypocrisy in Asia and the Middle East. He stood up to American bullying in the region. He provided leadership in the Iran-Iraq war, when the entire West sided with Iraq and its brutal dictator, Saddam Hussain. He brought back his nation from the brink and delivered greater political stability and opportunities for economic prosperity. What can Rohani do for Iran?

Iran is at a major crossroad. There is a growing middleclass, which is educated and wealthy, but also allergic to religion. Islam has become a hate-word for many, representing repression, lack of freedom and imposition of anti-modern values. They prefer a secular lifestyle and happily embrace the freedoms of the Western way of life. The conservative rural Iran may have retained a strong religious sentiment, but the sight of so many young people leaving Islam must be alarming the clerics.

The tug of war between the religious right and the liberal secular left is becoming more vivid by the day. Those who voted for Rohani, especially the facebook and twitter generations, did not vote for Rohani because of Islam. For them he represented the lesser undesirable of the many conservative presidential candidates on the voting card. Can Rohani both delight the spiritual guardians of the state by turning the tide of exodus from Islam, and charm the youth who are no longer interested in the clerics and their theocracy? He is stuck between a rock and a hard place: wowing the freedom-loving and permissive youth while keeping the clerics happy.

Iran has been a pariah state in the eyes of the Western nations ever since Khomeini's infamous and the first anti-Western outburst in the early '80s. It has since become an every-Friday ritual for the Iranian clerics to shout anti-Western slogans at their weekly Friday sermons. This antagonistic stance is not only detrimental to the Iranian people, but to the millions of Muslims living in the West today. Can Rohani alter the mindset of the Iranian conservative block, for whom the West is an avowed enemy only to be condemned?

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the out-going president was a very polarizing figure. He single-handedly created the biggest chasm between Iran and the West since the end of the Iraq-Iran war. He ruled by creating fear in the corridors of power outside Iran, and restricting the freedom of his critics inside Iran. The conservative Iranians loved him, but the secular liberals and reformers loathed him. Can Rohani be a more unifying leader who will end the years of isolation and ostracization of Iran?

Iran's nuclear programme is a constant headache for the Western world on one hand and Middle Eastern rulers on the other. Iran has been telling the world that their nuclear programme is solely intended for civil energy production, but the world does not believe it. Israel has been threatening to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities, and the USA has been tacitly supporting Israel's right to pre-emptive action. The Middle Eastern dictators are mainly Sunni and cannot stomach a nuclear Shi'a Iran on their doorstep. For them, it would open the gates of hell and their reign will be directly threatened. Rohani has already promised to be more transparent about Iran's nuclear programme, but not to shut it down. Can Rohani be trusted on this matter?

Iran's support of Bashar Al-Assad's regime in the Syrian conflict has brought into sharp focus the sectarian side of Iranian foreign policy that it has never displayed so openly before. Even though Iran believes in giving its people the right to elect their own leader, it still supports Assad's regime, which does not allow the Syrian people to elect their President or the Parliament freely. The reason behind this obvious double standard must be that Assad and his cronies are Shi'a. It is a shame that Iran cannot do anything but support its Shi'a brothers whatever they do. Can Rohani show the world that he is a man of justice and principles? Can he stand on the side of the thousands of murdered Syrians? Can he forgo his sectarian ties, support justice and oppose Assad's tyranny?

The Shi'a and Sunni divide has been a festering problem in the Muslim world. Sectarian violence has caused untold misery for all people - the Shi'a minorities in Pakistan have been at the receiving end of some of the worst violence, Sunnis in Iraq have been marginalized and the Shi'a community in Bahrain has suffered state repression. It has created mistrust, animosity and resentment in the hearts and minds of the Shi'a and Sunni Muslims all over the world. Can Rohani win the hearts and minds of Shi'a and Sunni communities? Can he nurture friendship between the Sunnis and Shi'as? And can the Sunni world be more embracing of their Shi'a brothers and sisters?

George W Bush once called Iran the 'axis of evil', and the international community shunned Iran for decades and is currently imposing sanctions on it. Sanctions never hurt a regime; they only hurt the ordinary people. The Iranian people feel extremely aggrieved at their vilification, isolation and intimidation by the West. If Rohani is to heal the old wounds, bridge the huge gulf between Iran and the rest of the world, as well as deliver a nuclear-free, prosperous and less hostile Iran, what is the world prepared to do for Iran?

Could Rohani expect USA to tell Israel to tone down their war rhetoric? Could the UN lift or promise to lift sanctions? Could the world leaders embrace Rohani as a genuine broker of peace and stability in the region and reformer in Iran? What could the world offer Rohani?

The name Rohani - 'spiritual' - has a beautiful feel to it; could it be emblematic of his potential to be the healer of many troubled hearts all around him? He has a charismatic and loveable smile that easily disarms a person. Could Rohani use his persona to win the hearts and minds of his enemies? The most fundamental question in everyone's mind is: can President Hassan Rohani deliver on his promises and live up to the world's expectations?