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Paul Iddon

Why Rouhani warned Iran's leadership not to repeat Shah's mistakes

Rouhani has urged the Iranian establishment to listen to people's frustrations [Getty]

Date of publication: 6 February, 2018

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Analysis: The slightest veneer of democracy has enabled the regime in Tehran to rule for four decades, writes Paul Iddon.
In a very illuminating speech marking the 39th anniversary of the 1979 revolution, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani gave a mild warning to the ruling clerical establishment which served as an apt reminder of how the regime in Tehran has survived all these years.

"The previous regime thought monarchical rule would last forever, but it lost everything for this very reason - that it did not hear the criticism of the people," Rouhani said.

He was referring to the last Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, while speaking at the shrine of the man who overthrew him, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

The ancien régime also "did not hear the voice of reformers, advisers, scholars, elites and the educated", Rouhani argued. "It only heard the voice of revolution… and by then, it was too late."

Rouhani urged Tehran's leadership to "have a listening ear for people's demands and wishes" in a clear allusion to the recent upheaval and widespread protests in Iran over the dire straits in which the economy is floundering, as well as other contentious issues ranging from compulsory hijab-wearing to their country's costly involvement in Syria and the wider region.

The Iranian president isn't offering this advice out of any desire for greater political freedoms in Iran - he has a vested interest in keeping the regime entrenched in power. But Rouhani's summary of the folly of the last Shah is quite accurate. Supreme Leader Khamenei and his cohorts risk repeating history at their peril.

Rouhani is a protégé of the, now late, former President Akar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a pragmatist who always sought to do whatever necessary to ensure the regime's survival and longevity.

"You and Khamenei must stay close," Khomeini told Rafsanjani on his deathbed. The founder of the Islamic Republic then squeezed Rafsanjani's thumb before saying his final words: "The revolution will thrive if you stick together."
The regime has maintained a simulacrum of democratic governance, which its apologists invariably point to in order to claim that Iran is a 'free country'


It's clear that Khomeini calculated that Khamenei's embodiment of the revolution's ideology balanced by Rafsanjani's pragmatism would enable the regime to weather the storms against it and endure. Rouhani's recent comments are therefore an apt example of him following in his mentor's footsteps at another challenging time for the regime.

Rouhani was elected twice by the Iranian people, once in 2013 and again last year. The regime has maintained a simulacrum of democratic governance, which its apologists invariably point to in order to claim that Iran is a "free country".

While the candidates for election are severely restricted - with a handful of candidates hand-picked from the thousands who apply to qualify and the Supreme Leader has the final say in all matters - presidential elections have nevertheless served as an effective tool for Iran's rulers to determine how the Iranian public actually feels about many policies.
Voter turnout is a key barometer for the regime to determine how the populace feels and how they can successfully either co-opt or subvert popular will


In stark contrast to this, the last Shah risibly claimed he had "the pulse of his people in his hand" after in 1975 completely abolishing the already-servile two-party system - which Iranians used to sarcastically call the "yes party" and the "yes, sir party". This cemented his isolation from the Iranian people and resulted in his infamous downfall less than five years later.

In the 2013 election Khamenei, clearly cognizant of the crucial importance of voter turnout for any semblance of legitimacy, called upon Iranians to go out and vote, claiming it was a necessary measure against Iran's enemies. Voter turnout is a key barometer for the regime to determine how the populace feels and how they can successfully either co-opt or subvert popular will.

Most Iranians voted for Rouhani in 2013 since they saw him taking issue with Tehran's policies in the preceding years - and also because he clearly wasn't Khamenei's preferred candidate. Also, voting for Rouhani was the only way in which Iranians could steer their ship of state in a more conciliatory course with the West rather than a confrontational one within the framework of the current order. This ultimately brought about the nuclear deal a mere two years later.

Even the June 2009 Green Movement which supported presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - in whose favour they alleged that election was rigged - and which conducted large-scale protests across the country, were still only seeking political change within the rigid framework of the regime establishment and not attempting to actually topple the regime.

This approach, combined with the brute force and willingness of the regime's vanguard - the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Basiji paramilitaries - to brutally repress dissent, is the primary reason it has successfully managed to retain power for four decades.

Rouhani's latest comments were a simple reminder from the regime's pragmatic wing to keep to the formula that has enabled them to rule for so long. 

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.


Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon



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