Will Iran change under its new President?

By Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali

The installation of Hassan Rouhani as President of Iran next month will certainly herald a new chapter in Iran’s dealings with the rest of the world and in the treatment of its own long-suffering people. It is clear that he was elected not only because it was felt, at the highest level, and also by the people, that he was best placed to negotiate with the West on Iran’s nuclear programme but also because he was seen as the person, amongst the hand-picked candidates, most likely to appeal to reform-hungry Iranians.

It is known that he is a protégé of the former President Muhammed Khatami, with whom I have had the opportunity of working. Whilst he was President, we spent a whole day with him at Westminster and in meeting political, civil society and religious leaders. Visiting him in Iran, I was always struck by his learning and his humility. Khatami had a good knowledge of the Puritan origins of the United States and the ways in which tension between religious beliefs and liberty was resolved in the history of that country. He never tired of pointing out that Iran was going through a similar phase as the US, at the time of its founding, and that patience was needed for the tension between religion and freedom to be worked out there as well. In opposition to the then fashionable ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis, he launched his own ‘dialogue of civilisations’ programme. Along with others, I took part in several aspects of this and was allowed to speak about the Christian faith, freedom of belief and of expression and justice for Christian and other groups whose property had been confiscated and whose rights has been curtailed.

Khatami’s presidency failed because the West, and especially the US, did not respond adequately to his overtures but also because he ran into opposition from hard-liners. The collapse of Kahatami’s reformism showed where real power resided with the ‘Ulama, who constituted the Guardianship of the Revolution, and ultimately with the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, himself.

The popular portrayal of Iran as a nation either driven by Islamic revolutionary fervour or, on the other hand, by the periodic welling up of political dissent, especially among, the young, women and the urban middle-classes, does not do justice to the complexity of Iranian society. There is, in fact, constant interplay between the ancient civilization of Iran and Islam, in its political form. In historical, literary and artistic terms, many Iranians understand their identity as continuous with the pre-Islamic, as well as the Islamic, periods. The attitude to art, particularly pictorial art and even religious art, is quite different in Iran from the rest of the Islamic world.

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