Firstly, intentionally or otherwise, the interview creates the impression that there are still figures within the wider establishment who reflect the sentiments of ordinary Iranians. The disillusionment of the people has indeed become far more pronounced in recent years, blaming the regime rather than outside forces for Iran’s domestic crises, and seeing Iran’s regional policies as detrimental to the national interest and the well-being of Iranians at home.

Given the deeply entrenched crisis of legitimacy and widespread popular condemnation that all factions of the elite are facing – from reformists to Rafsanjani-style moderates to hardliners – such interventions may ultimately serve the purpose of suggesting that there are still elements within the system that speak on behalf of the people and can advance their interests.

In this vein, Sadeq Zibakalam later stated in an interview that the June presidential elections are "dead" and have no chance of being "revived", there being no way to convince those 24 million who had voted for Rouhani to take to the polls. An exception might present itself, however, were reformists to campaign on the issues of freedom and democracy.

You may also like: Interview with the artist Parastou Forouhar – Iranian society in shock

He also said that he believed that Faezeh Hashemi would be the "best candidate" for the presidency, despite that fact that, according to the Islamic Republic’s constitution, a woman cannot become president.

Secondly, Faezeh Hashemi’s vocabulary reflected the terminology characteristic of the wider reformist-pragmatic camp. From the afore-mentioned focus on "development" all the way to "reform". The latter concept, in particular, has turned out to be a chimaera, very much understood by the country at large. Thirdly, her discussion of her father’s legacy clearly tended towards glorification. For instance, she repeatedly stressed that he was advancing, if not implementing, "freedom and democracy".

In brief, her criticism doesn’t derive from a truly progressive standpoint, but rather from that of a "loyal opposition". Hashemi is seeking to change the direction the Islamic Republic has taken under the leadership of Supreme Leader Khamenei – especially since his falling out with long-time ally and erstwhile kingmaker Rafsanjani during the Ahmadinejad era – by safeguarding it, seeking merely limited modernisation and reform, rather than clear-cut democratisation.

The West’s Iran policy: change in the Islamic Republic requires pressure

Leaving the complex peculiarities and muddy waters of Iran’s domestic political arena aside, the interview offers an important lesson for Western policymakers, just as U.S. President Biden has promised to re-engage Iran. This lies in the fact that pressure is an indispensable, yet not – in and of itself – sufficient feature (as can be seen from four years of "maximum pressure" on Iran), of any future U.S. or transatlantic policy toward Iran, assuming there is a desire to see changes to Iran’s domestic politics and regional policies.


As such, merely recommitting the U.S. to the JCPOA is not likely to yield those results, as Faezeh Hashemi rightly suggested. After all, as can be seen from numerous instances in the history of the Islamic Republic, Tehran has more often than not offered changes to its policies as a consequence of pressure, rather than the absence thereof.

What indeed many Iranians hoping to see change in their country fear is a quasi-appeasement policy under Biden, which would replace Trump's admittedly futile and brutish "maximum pressure" campaign. The most progressive solution would be to incorporate the issue of human rights – a topic sorely missing from a recent call by experts that Biden return the U.S. to the Iran deal – in any future negotiations. This was a point recently emphasised by Germany’s most prominent Iranians in talks with Berlin’s top state institutions.

Human rights would be a welcome addition to a new transatlantic Iran policy that at least attempts to combine concerns over nuclear non-proliferation and Iran’s regional policies with those relating to Iranians’ democratic rights and the desire for Iranian economic recovery through easing of sanctions.

Ali Fathollah-Nejad

© 2021

Ali Fathollah-Nejad is author of the upcoming Iran in an Emerging New World Order and a non-resident senior research fellow with the Afro–Middle East Centre (AMEC), Johannesburg. He was formerly Iran expert with the Brookings Institution in Doha (BDC) & the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP).

More on this topic