Since coming to office in August, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has done everything to spell out the profound difference between his administration and the previous one. No, Iran is still not a liberal democracy, but what we are witnessing today is an amazing journey of a struggling country with barriers, obstacles, and contending ideologies and practices towards a better future and some kind of coexistence with the surrounding world.
Rouhani’s campaign revolved around the same ideas he is professing now as a president. Dialogue with the west, compromise on the nuclear issues, recovering the economy, and eventually doing anything possible to lift the sanctions. Critics maintained that he is merely a puppet of the hardliners. In fact, he had to compromise with his own hardliners: his cabinet is not the one he dreamt of, but the winds of change are coming to Tehran. In a couple of interviews to American network Rouhani reiterated the official stand of the IRI that under no circumstances should Iran pursue development of nuclear weapons. Cynics may dismiss it altogether, but Iran opposes weapons of mass destruction regardless of pretext. Harsh criticism was voiced (and later been denied to some extent) against Assad’s Syria use of chemical weapon, reminding the Iranian tragedy as a victim of Saddam Hussein WMD attacks during the long war.
Then, for the first time in years, an Iranian-Jewish rapprochement has begun with celebratory tweets from the presidential office in Tehran to the Jewish people worldwide wishing them Shana Tov (happy new year). Mohammad Javad-Zarif, the Foreign Affairs Minister, seconded it with his own tweets, and then a conversation thread with Christine Pelosi (the daughter of Nancy Pelosi- the Democratic minorit leader of the house) regarding Iran’s holocaust denial, to which Javad Zarif eloquently answered: “Iran never denied it. The man who did is now gone. Happy new year.”
Not to spare a moment, shortly after The Times of Israel reported that Rouhani may meet Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto, a prominent Israeli spiritual leader, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. Pinto is known to have good relations with high officials in the Israeli administration. The meeting has yet to be confirmed, but that is it even being broached is worthy of mention.
In the past week, amidst reports of power struggles between the new Iranian administration and the Revolutionary Guards, some change was also felt inside Iran. It is not quite clear if it was just a glitch or intended experiment, but Twitter and Facebook ban was briefly lifted in Iran for the first time since 2009. During Ahmadinejad’s presidency it happened a couple of times, but was reported to be a glitch and reinstalled shortly after. This time, it may appear as a taken path rather than a bug or mistake. What makes me believe that it is more of a new direction, were the events of releasing long-time political prisoners, such as Nasrin Sotoudeh.
A few months ago, shortly after the elections, I interviewed a prominent member of the Iranian Jewish community who told me: “Nobody realizes what a friend of the Jewish community has just been elected.” He referred to his tenure as President Khatami’s advisor, when he initiated and helped to organize the president’s visit to the Yousef-Abad synagogue in Tehran. And now, the most recent news from the Iranian capital is that one of the parliament members that will accompany the president in his trip to New York is the Jewish representative, Siamak Moreh-Sedek.
The negotiations regarding the nuclear issues are about to restart soon, with a clear message from the Iranian administration that an agreement is within reach. The government is determined to improve Iran’s situation both domestic and internationally. If by now you still do not think that something has changed in Iran following the presidency of Hassan Rouhani, you must stop watching Fox News or living in inside Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s mind.
Lior Sternfeld is pursuing a Ph.D. in History at the University of Texas, Austin.