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A Reason Behind Rouhani's 'Glasnost'

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, in his first press conference after victory in May 19 Election, on Monday May 22, 2017.

President Hassan Rouhani was well aware before the elections that the reform-minded voters who comprise his base would not necessarily rally around his meager record of economic accomplishments. He needed a decisive victory, writes Radio Farda analyst Reza Taghizadeh.

Rouhani chose a different tack. Winning by only a slim margin would not be enough to enact any real reforms in his second term, so he called upon voters to re-elect him with a big margin.

On the road to re-election, Rouhani shrewdly discovered that a decisive victory was unattainable through economic promises alone. His government was vulnerable on the topic of economy. His main challenger had promised to pay people implausibly generous cash handouts.

Inevitably, Rouhani restructured his campaign strategy and created a new platform a revised manifesto based on political openness, or glasnost.

Opening up the political atmosphere of Iran -- a deeply rooted popular notion among voters -- was a good omen welcomed not only by Iranians but also internationally.

Putting glasnost at the heart of his campaign was a move that practically checkmated his main challenger, mid-ranking cleric Ebrahim Raeisi. Raeisi, a notoriously hard-line judge, was in no position to match the incumbent on political openness.

Predictably, Rouhani won the election, with 57 percent of the popular vote, close enough to the margin he had aimed for.

Reform From The Top

The re-elected president now has no option left other than to implement the glasnost strategy.

In authoritarian regimes, short-sightedness is a common failure among leaders. Autocrats fail to recognize crises until they are right in front of their eyes, almost too late to be controlled.

Having prisons full of dissidents and political and ideological activists is another common characteristic of authoritarian regimes.

Freeing political prisoners and respecting freedom of expression -- allowing dissidents to assemble peacefully and ending censorship -- are the hallmarks of a crucial evolution that occurs in authoritarian regimes before an ultimate shift. Without such a full evolution, authoritarian regimes are doomed.

The Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev is a prime example. The USSR was on the verge of collapse, and Gorbachev prescribed the bitter pill of glasnost and perestroika, or restructuring, to save the Red Empire on its deathbed. Gorbachev’s reformist policies were thwarted midway and led to the downfall of the Soviet Union.

In its Iranian example, the last shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, decided to offer the people a fairer share of power and wealth. He introduced his so-called White Revolution and immediately implemented it after it was decisively approved in a national referendum in 1963.

In his next step, in 1979, the late shah decided to create an atmosphere of political openness. He freed political prisoners and promised to hold free elections that same year.

In both cases, political openness quickly released pent-up pressure within the closed society, which turned into a lethal explosion for the regime. Also in both cases, the reforms from the top were out of desperation, forced on the system and its leaders. The symptoms of the crisis turned into real and tangible threats that brought down the two regimes.

When it comes to reforms from the top, Spain can be singled out as an exception. Its reforms started in 1975, following General Francisco Franco’s death, and in the early 1980s bloomed into democracy without being detrimental to the monarchy.

In contemporary history, Spain’s example is a rare case of an authoritarian system transforming into a democracy without being totally annihilated.

The First Step: Ending House Arrests

Political openness, despite its appeal for the people, has its own exclusive inner and outer pressures that drag ruling systems to the verge of a fatal abyss.

Rouhani has always been an insider of the Islamic regime from its very beginning until today. He perfectly knows the religious system’s points of weakness and strength.

As head of the government, Rouhani is more of a pragmatist than an idealist. In tackling problems, clearing bottlenecks and responding to people’s demands, he is quite aware of the system’s limitations. He also recognizes just where the presidency sits on the pyramid of power.

A week before the election, Rouhani, while reiterating that a 51 percent victory would not enough to tackle certain problems, said, “People should either vote for a judge or a lawyer.”

It was crystal clear that by using the word “lawyer,” he was referring to himself. Later, he also said he wanted to be the “people’s lawyer.”

Nevertheless, by using the word “judge,” he was not pointing to his challenger, Raesi, but rather the major judge, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in mind.

If Rouhani honestly want to reform the regime before its inevitable downfall, one might conclude he will use his re-election as a lever to force Khamenei to accept the necessity of implementing reformist policies and opening up the political atmosphere of the country.

However, Khamenei is at the top of the military-theocratic regime and, like other authoritarian rulers before him, strongly denies the existence of any crisis in Iran and says such claims are imaginary and smearing attempts. Therefore, he is not prepared to listen to Rouhani’s case of defense for the Iranian people.

Furthermore, Khamenei won’t easily relent and set free the prominent figures of the Green Movement who have been under house arrest for more than six years.

The only way for Rouhani could force the supreme leader to do so is to ask his supporters to besiege the major judge’s citadel and start a protest.

Former President Mohammad Khatami had the same chance that Rouhani has now, but, too scared of the consequences, he missed the opportunity.