The Window is Open but How Much Reform can be Expected from Iran?
March 24, 2014
Host: The Atlantic Council
Event: Iran Through a European Lens
Ms. Marietje Schaake, Member of the European Parliament for the Dutch Democratic Party (D66)
Since running as a “reformist” in 2013, and subsequently being elected president of Iran, Hasssan Rouhani has invoked hope amongst Western leaders that a new era of diplomatic relations and cooperation is on the horizon. With the U.S. withdrawing from Afghanistan at the end of 2014 and lessening its footprint in the region, many scholars and policymakers see an opportunity for Iran, the EU, and the U.S. to reset relations and pursue mutual interests in the Middle East. No one wants Afghanistan to once again become a breeding ground for Sunni extremists and all parties have an interest in ending the war in Syria. The historic phone call between presidents Rouhani and Obama following the UN General Assembly in 2013, set the stage for multilateral talks on Iran’s nuclear program – a subject that was off limits to Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – which have in turn paved the way for a variety of potential U.S.-EU-Iran initiatives.
In December PM Schaake joined a European delegation on a trip to Tehran, marking the first European parliamentary visit in nearly a decade. In Tehran she was able to engage with Iranian policymakers as well as average citizens and get an on-the-ground perspective of where relations currently stand between Iran and the West. She described Iran as a country in transition, one that is being led towards change by a new wave of “liberal” leaders and educated youths, but is also experiencing fierce resistance from an entrenched and conservative class of policymakers, religious figures, and business leaders. Though reformists won the election, the Revolutionary Guard and other conservative elements have played an intricate part in upholding Iran’s sanctioned economy – benefiting from smuggling goods and the lack of business competition – and still play a large role in the country’s policy making.
This battle for influence is clearly illustrated by the country’s seemingly contradictory policies. On the human rights front, President Rouhani and many of his cabinet members advanced Iranians’ right to freedom of expression by using Twitter – a site that is officially banned, though widely used in Iran – and enforcing religious dress code less stringently. However, conservative elements have simultaneously continued Iran’s high level of executions, oppose ongoing negotiations with the West, and still maintain tight control over the country’s state-sponsored media outlets. While visiting the country, Ms. Schaake described her delegation as being under constant scrutiny by the state’s conservative news stations. Meetings that they held with activists and diplomats were heavily scrutinized and were typically framed by the state-media through a conspiratorial lens. The tight control that these elements have over Iranian media, while also banning the New York Times and other rival news outlets, is in Ms. Schaake’s mind, one of the most damaging elements of Iranian rule.
Though nuclear negotiations have created an opening for dialogue to occur, Ms. Schaake urges international leaders to expand their agenda and put more human rights issues on their official agenda. By facilitating cultural exchanges and further expanding the list of common interests, she believes that Iran, the U.S. and the EU can form a long-term partnership. As demonstrated by the country’s own leaders, Internet restrictions are loosely enforced and easily circumvented; the Iranian people, and particularly the younger generations, can and want to communicate with the outside world. To further advance peace and stability both in Iran and the West, leaders should do more to engage on a variety of topics. Right now there is an opening, a new beginning, under which U.S. – Iran relations can be redefined. This opportunity should not go unaddressed.