Checklist: Has President Rouhani Lived Up to his Promises?

Hassan Rouhani

Elected in June, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani formally assumed office in August. He has since made remarkable advances, including a push to ease nuclear tensions with the West in order to rid the economy of encumbering sanctions. (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

In early June, newly-elected Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, a moderate in comparison to his hard-line predecessor Mouhmad Ahmadinejad,emerged as a symbol of hope for a citizenry burdened by a catastrophic financial crisis brought on by Western sanctions. Prior to beginning his term, Rouhani vowed to direct governmental efforts towards mending Iran’s shattered relations with the West, reviving the Iranian economy, and articulating a desire to restore basic human rights within the country.

While the new leader was warmly met by the eager masses ready to move past the repressive Ahmadinejad era, there was no telling whether his words would bear fruit. Rouhani’s potential to affect such change was eclipsed by a shadow of doubt stemming from the supposition that he would serve as merely yet another slave to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and his Islamic regime. So has Iran’s “angel” Rouhani upheld his rhetoric presented during his campaign since entering office? Now, more than 6 months into his presidency, the gulf between his words and actions can be qualitatively tracked.

Appeasing the Hardliners

How has Rouhani performed thus far in winning the favor of governmental hardliners while working towards his progressive reform plans? At the start of his presidency, Rouhani took initiative to begin thawing strained US-Iran relations with a visit to the United Nations. You may recall his fifteen-minute phone call with President Obama during the trip, a call that garnered both support and criticism. Regardless of the critics, this phone call was a huge first step in the right direction towards reconciling US-Iran relations considering that the two states have not shared this level of contact since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Furthermore, Khamenei approved of Rouhani’s October trip to the United States. Although unable to appease hard-liners on the issue as they derided his approach, as long as the President is able to maintain the Supreme Leader’s support, he will be able to ward off hard-liner criticisms in his advances towards a relaxed relationship with the West.

Catering to Reformists

During his reign thus far, Rouhani has been performing a careful balancing act; he has struck a careful balance between the hardline and reformist camps while avoiding alienating Khamenei and other key government players. The new President has successfully garnered and maintained support from notable predecessors, including popular former reformist President Mohammad Khatami and former President Akbar Rafsanjani, one of the pillars of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, who remarked that “Rouhani’s success in New York is the mark of the divine victory.” Although not to the degree which former president Khatami was able to mobilize the “Iranian street,” Rouhani seems to have been met with considerable success in galvanizing the reformist camp, namely the youth who have warmly accepted his overtures to reduce Internet censorship.

Ending Sanctions

Perhaps his most significant achievement thus far has been unveiled at the negotiation table with Western powers. Back in November, Rouhani was able to successfully reach a temporary deal with the United States while entering into a year-long negotiation period to construct a permanent deal to ease sanctions. The $7-billion USD received by Iran in sanctions relief created room for a rise in the Iranian Rial and a minor stabilization of the national economy. Both the initial agreement and the overtures by both parties have been called nothing short of “historic” in the media.

Economic Viability

As mentioned, some of the easing of sanctions has seen a rise in the purchasing power of the Rial thereby providing Iranian citizens with some relief. Analyst groups claim that “last year, with economic pressure at its peak, Iran suffered from severe hyperinflation, and the Rial became the least valued currency in the world. This is no longer the case, as the Rial has gained significant value in 2013’. However, further economic steps must be made; the nuclear deal with the West has yet to come into full form, and whether Obama will be able to convince Congress to further repeal sanctions will prove to be a major determinant of whether Rouhani’s reform efforts retain momentum.

Relations With Israel

Thanks to his reputation as the new face of Iran, Rouhani has garnered a considerable amount of positive press and, for the most part, positive attention from the West – which has acted as a negative force against Israel. Within a month of Rouhani’s holding office, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dubbed him a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” immediately dismissing him as nothing more than another mere slave to the Islamic regime. However, it seems that Israel emerged as the real loser in this love triangle between the United States, Iran and itself, failing to turn the West against its enemy as it had hoped. Within weeks after the Prime Minister’s fiery comment, Iran successfully brokered the temporary deal with the United States. Since then, public Israeli threats and comments against the country have subsided as the country now seems more preoccupied with the Palestinian question than the Iranian-nuclear issue at the moment.­­­

Human Rights

The human rights issue is arguably the weakest front of Rouhani’s presidency thus far. The leader’s promises on this subject seem to be little more than empty rhetoric, as notable action has yet to be taken to restore basic human rights and create equality among members of the citizenry. Premature optimism for Rouhani to improve civil rights issues has all but withered as the only observable change has been a steep rise in executions since he took office.

Another warning sign in his term stems from the detainment of prisoners within the country. The government’s minor gesture of releasing a few political prisoners in December did little to placate the mounting concerns of relatives and families of those still imprisoned, including activists of the “Iranian Street.” Additionally, despite early promises to address the house arrests of Green Revolution leaders Kharibi and Mousavi’s house arrests, not even a mention of the issue has been made. The president has remained silent even amidst mounting claims from close family and friends that their health is deteriorating significantly as a result of being confined within their households for several years now.

Whether Rouhani’s strategy to maintain popular support follows that of his predecessor Khatami’s path remains to be seen. In the middle of Khatami’s second term, his base fell apart due to youth and women disenfranchisement. Rouhani’s track record on human rights and freedoms may very well be what determines his support from his base.

Implications for U.S.-Iran Relations

Despite his shortcomings on the human rights dilemma, Rouhani’s successes have provided the Iranian regime with some degree of legitimacy it had been lacking for years, both in the eyes of the international community and the Iranian electorate. The real question for the Obama administration, however, is whether the Rouhani government’s newfound political capital and prestige is enough to placate conservative Hawks in Congress on both sides of the aisle who have been itching to introduce further sanctions. Any new congressional sanctions against Iran would not only spell the end of the current deal but would most likely set back nuclear negotiations by a number of years. Yet Rouhani, a veteran statesman and diplomat, is keenly aware that the halls of Congress are just as significant an arena for statecraft and diplomacy as the negotiating table. Rouhani’s foreign minister Javad Zarif has recently made a concerted effort to promote lobbying of their position to Congress via the small-but-growing Iranian-American lobby already present in the country.We will know soon enough how far Rouhani is willing to go to make good on his campaign promises in seeking to uplift the Iranian state.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff and editorial board.

Obama’s Delay on Syria and Why the Response is a Little Too Late

Last summer, President Barack Obama vowed to employ a military intervention in civil war-stricken Syria if either side resorted to use of chemical weapons.

This summer, there has been confirmation that the conflict has crossed that “red line.” It’s your move now, Mr. President, but remember – whatever you decide to do, it’s a little too late to avoid checkmate.

Instead of drawing a line and waiting around playing the “sitting duck” game, the United States should have provided the Syrian rebels fighting in the civil war with military aid from the start. By passively watching the progression of what started as a peaceful protest of President Bashar al-Assad met by harsh government crackdowns, the international realm has allowed the situation to escalate into a full-scale civil war. The incumbent Assad regime – backed by Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iran and Russia – is fighting a rebel opposition backed by al-Qaida. By remaining inactive in the civil war, the West has played a clear role in allowing the death toll in Syria to continue to skyrocket. So the way I see it, the White House will tolerate the appearance of radical Muslim organizations in the conflict, and will tolerate the countless numbers of civilians killed daily, but the moral compass for some reason only prevails when the use of chemical weapons is introduced into the situation.

So what exactly will the Obama Administration do? Well, the answer is simple: do what has always been done. The White House has decided to supply military support through arming the rebels with “light” weapons. The United States is going to arm al-Qaeda-backed rebel forces who have already faced an astronomical death toll and most probably view the US with little credibility, thanks to our delay. Does anyone else see the obvious problem here? President Obama needs to take a note from history and consider the repercussions of what he is planning to do. Remember when the United States decided to arm Bin Laden and his supporters in the 1970s to push the Soviets out of Afghanistan? Those forces were then used to build up al-Qaeda as we know it today, which turned swiftly against its creator and spawned a massive terrorism campaign met by President George W. Bush’s infamous and seemingly endless “War on Terror“.

Is it too far-fetched to suppose that the Syrian rebel fighters will undoubtedly turn on the United States with animosity for its delay in assistance? Perhaps. But I don’t think it’s throwing the ball too far out of the park to say that with nearly 100,000 civilians already dead, from a humanitarian standpoint it may have behooved the White House to act more promptly. But then again, there is that consideration that the United States doesn’t really feel any sort of humanitarian obligation to the international realm, and particularly to the Middle East. Not only that, but our intervention within the region has been sporadic and confusingly contradictory. For instance, while the Obama administration saw no problem in thrusting its military forces into Libya in 2011, and liberally continues to dowse Yemen and obliterate countless innocent citizens with drones, it holds reservations in assisting the Syrian people from what appears to be escalating into a new-age genocide. Likewise, the administration has worked effortlessly to combat al-Qaeda by locating and killing Osama bin Laden, yet it continues to bolster al-Qaeda bases by arming al-Qaeda-backed rebel fighters in Syria.

Had the United States decided to act two years ago, in 2011, when the civil unrest began, it may have actually had a legitimate shot at quelling the war against Bashar al-Assad and his regime while at the same time preventing the rise of extremist groups such as al-Qaeda. That time has passed, so all we can hope for is that the Obama administration decides to intervene strongly enough. So let’s hope the White House is going to arm the Syrian rebels with more than just light weapons; without supplementing mere ammunition with antitank rockets and antiaircraft systems, there is little hope that the Syrian rebels will be able to finally put an end to this bloodshed and emerge victorious. With vital United States national security interests – namely containing al-Qaeda and preserving the security of Israel – being threatened by the civil war, it is now more urgent than ever for the Obama administration to take action to protect not only national interests but also human dignity and put a stop to the coldblooded carnage plaguing Syria.

The Emerging Threat of Cyber Espionage Against US Economic Interests

Major Issues and Recommendations for a Stronger US Cyber Defense Capability

A comprehensive report recently released by Mandiant, a private information security firm, has confirmed China’s expansive cyber espionage operations against US private industry. This report has aroused debate in the public sphere regarding US cyber vulnerabilities. However, state-sponsored cyber espionage has been well documented as early as 2006 and has resulted in at least hundreds of terabytes of data theft (Mandiant 2013, 20). The main perpetrators have been identified as China, Russia, France, Israel, and most recently, countries in the Middle East such as Iran (Booz Allen Hamilton 2012, 8). Due to the increasing number of monthly cyber attacks on US economic interests, information security professionals in the private and public sectors have criticized the US Government’s inability to effectively address this growing concern. While the threat of catastrophic cyber warfare is often overhyped, the threat of economic espionage through cyber attacks is not, and public criticism of US cyber security vulnerabilities is valid.

Cyber espionage endangers America’s global economic prowess and national security. China, Russia, and other states continuously steal many years worth of R&D from private US companies to expedite their economic development. It is estimated that these efforts to increase political and military power via cyber espionage have resulted in the loss of tens of billions of dollars from US firms (Nakashima 2013). If left unaddressed, this growing threat could result in the theft of sensitive trade secrets that would severely impact national security, especially if the companies and data involved contain sensitive military secrets such as classified aircraft designs.

One of the greatest challenges in addressing cyber espionage is the current lack of effective attribution methods. This critical absence of sufficient detection techniques allows both state and non-state actors to conceal their roles in cyber espionage and therefore avoid public reprimands from the US Government and the international community (Economist 2012). In Russia, for example, the unique nexus between government, organized crime, and business makes Russian cyber attacks very difficult to track, especially since the government purportedly employs underground youth hacking networks to achieve its cyber espionage objectives (Smith 2012, 3). The US Government needs to increase its coordination efforts with private industry to develop more sophisticated cyber attack attribution techniques in order deter state actors from committing further economic espionage.

Efforts at collaboration between US Government entities and the private sector are hampered by a secretive and inconsistent US cyber policy. The Obama Administration has apparently begun drafting internal cyber security policy and has directed certain agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security, to allocate more funding for cyber security initiatives (Sanger and Shanker 2013). However, many outside experts have indicated that the US Government and the private sector are not sufficiently collaborating to ameliorate the cyber threat (Wolf 2012, 11). The US Government cannot expect private businesses to defend themselves against the penetration efforts of foreign intelligence services. Therefore, policymakers and private industry leaders need to forge closer relations, develop a more coherent cyber defense policy, and share information regarding current threats and trends to provide for a stronger US cyber defense capability.