How to Reform a Theocracy

A Domestic Playbook for Iran's Moderate President

Hassan Rouhani attends a conference on National Unity in Tehran in 2007 (Courtesy Reuters)

When Iranian President Hassan Rouhani delivered a speech last month at Tehran’s Shahid Beheshti University, the audience was a microcosm of his country’s bitter politics. Gathered at the back of the hall and amassed outside on the campus grounds were groups of young women and men who supported Rouhani's election campaign promises: engagement with Western powers, economic rejuvenation, and greater social and political rights. At the front of the hall, scowling, sat university administrators and conservative student groups. Those seated farther from Rouhani chanted, “Release the political prisoners,” while those closer to him shouted, “Death to America.” It was a tough crowd, to say the least.

But Rouhani managed to win it over. “A centrifuge should revolve,” he declared at one point, “but people’s lives and the economy should revolve as well.” Everyone cheered that line.

If Rouhani has any hopes of following through on his campaign promises to reform the Islamic Republic, he must continue to pursue this strategy. Some observers have been quick to compare Rouhani to Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader who initiated a series of political reforms in his country during the 1980s. That reputation understandably excites Iranian liberals. But it also worries Iranian conservatives, who are keenly aware that Gorbachev presided over the downfall of the Soviet system. In that sense, any sudden moves by Rouhani to liberalize Iran, whether in terms of its domestic politics, economy, or foreign policy, are likely to cause a backlash from conservatives that could cost Rouhani and his centrist allies their foothold in the country’s establishment.

Rouhani seems to recognize that a direct confrontation with Iran’s right wing would be too costly. But that does not mean he should give up trying to relax its grip on the state. It just means that he should do so gradually. Rouhani, in fact, can make real progress toward liberalization through a series of measured but canny steps.

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