Is this Rouhani’s Gorbachev Moment?


Is this Rouhani’s Gorbachev Moment?


Iran and the United States have reached an agreement. There are many opinions and analysis about this historic event: Israel calls it a mistake of gigantic proportions, US and Iran claim it to be a step toward resolution and most of the world is watching. Commentators and “experts” are either cautiously optimistic or concerned depending on their political ideology. It is too early to judge whether the nuclear agreement is a positive development. One thing is certain: Rouhani’s government is making some noticeable changes.

A Small Comparison

In 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev tried to open up and reform the Soviet system. The outcome remains debatable. Is Rouhani attempting to do the same in Iran? Can Iran’s recent nuclear agreement with the US be viewed in this light? Of course, there remain striking differences between Gorbachev and Rouhani. To begin with, Gorbachev was sitting at the helm of political power of the Soviet Union, whereas Rouhani, although technically the elected president, does not possess ‘supreme’ authority. In fact, Rouhani came to power primarily because of the fragmented state of Iran’s conservatives during the previous election.

Yet, like the Soviet Union, present-day Iran too was born out of a revolution. The Islamic Revolution was in many ways similar to the Bolshevik Revolution, even though the former sought a solution in political Islam whereas the latter resorted to Communism. Next, the “allies” that Iran has today are similar to those the Kremlin had. Compare Bashar al-Assad’s Syria with Soviet-era Cuba or Yemen — civil war, apparently, emerges as a throbbing business in either case. Lastly, it goes without saying that the geo-political and strategic situation that Iran enjoys is not very different from what the Soviet Union had.

Need of The Hour

How did Gorbachev manage to push for reforms in the Soviet Union? The answers are many, ranging from the inefficiency of the Soviet bureaucracy to the role played by US President Ronald Reagan, as well as the master tactics of Gorbachev himself, wherein he stressed that whatever he was doing was for the benefit of the Soviet system.

Can Iran’s Rouhani do the same? For starters, we can say that he is already working towards dividing the conservative factions in Iran. As a result of the recent nuclear negotiations with the US, Tehran will possibly view Washington not just as a foe but also as a potential negotiating partner in the future in dealing with a whole host of issues. Rouhani now needs a few domestic reforms — possibly a hand brake over clerical sovereignty or maybe a greater influence over the role of the omnipresent Revolutionary Guard.

Gorbachev however, attempted domestic reforms because those were the needs of the day. For Rouhani, a major threat lies in even more sanctions or further international isolationism. By striking a deal with the US, Rouhani and his team have, at least for the time being, ensured that their country is not going the way of North Korea.

A Final Comment

From 1989 to 1991, Gorbachev discovered that being brave was not the answer to every question. Unfortunately, this discovery later paved the way for territorial liquidation. Gorbachev never intended to end Communism per se; yet his decision to allow civic associations, introduce electoral reforms and eliminate censorship did so. He never sought to discard the Soviet economic machinery but market reforms undertaken by him also struck the death-chord for the Soviet economic model.

Iran does not need to go that route. All it needs a tinge of international acceptance — something that is possible if Uncle Sam is not openly hostile. In other words, Iran does not need deep-reaching political or economic reforms, but it does need diplomatic re-thinking. And this is exactly what Rouhani and his team have tried to do by signing the nuclear agreement with USA.

This agreement not only compels Israel and Saudi Arabia to reconsider their policies vis-à-vis Iran, it also showcases the potential for a new era in Iran-US relations. It now remains to be seen whether this deal will provide the much sought-after diplomatic vaccine for Iran or will the result unleash uncontrollable blowback.

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