Rouhani's Gorbachev Moment

What Makes a Genuine Reformer?

Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev visits the International University in Moscow, February 9, 2012.
Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev addresses students as he visits the International University in Moscow, February 9, 2012. (Denis Sinyakov/Courtesy Reuters)

Could Iranian President Hassan Rouhani be another Mikhail Gorbachev -- a real reformer who opens his country’s political system and creates the space for détente with the United States and Europe?

Historical analogies are always fraught, of course, and leaders who are championed as reformers almost always leave disillusionment in their wakes. In addition, the jury is still out on whether a nuclear deal between the United States and Iran, which would open the door for a relaxation of painful sanctions, is even a good idea -- the specifics of the agreement matter greatly.

But whichever side one comes down on, it is worth considering where the Islamic Republic might be headed. In that regard, there are a few areas to watch.

NOTHING LEFT TO LOSE

Gorbachev was unique, a true believer in Soviet renewal who sat at the very top of a profoundly centralized political system.

Rouhani is nothing like him. In fact, Rouhani came to power precisely because of Tehran’s deep fragmentation, particularly within its right-wing establishment. The fracturing created an opening that Rouhani burst through in a surprise electoral victory in June 2013. But it also means that he cannot impose far-reaching reform. No one in Iran could, not even Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. (If anything, the ceaseless invocations of Khamenei’s “supreme” authority testify to its absence, as well as his desire to have it.)

That said, the Iran state structure is similar to that of the former Soviet Union in some respects. Namely, both were born of revolution, which created a theocracy -- in one case with a clerical establishment, in the other with a Communist party -- that overrode the formal institutions of the state, such as parliaments, judiciaries, and civil service. In Iran, as in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, the revolution is aging, with far-reaching consequences. An official ideology, whether Marxism-Leninism or political Islam, can give a regime great power. But it can also destabilize the theocratic system if the populace and the rulers lose faith. And there, Iran is vulnerable.

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