According to many European analyses of Iran, the election of President Hassan Rouhani marked a significant turning point. While in the days of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the country was still widely regarded as the incarnation of evil, Iran has ever since been cast in a predominantly positive light. By Ali Fathollah-Nejad
Commentaries and analyses in the European media often give the impression that there have been fundamental political changes in Iran since Rouhani took office. This is a misconception, however, because what has actually happened is nothing more than a change in leadership within a systemic continuity. In spite of the competition that admittedly exists between the different political camps within the exclusively Islamist spectrum of Iran's political elite, the country's political and economic system has proven astonishingly resistant to reform.
The common argument that the West has a responsibility to institute policies designed to strengthen the so-called "moderate camp" (Hassan Rouhani, former President Mohammad Khatami) against the more "radical" elements ignores the fact that both political elites are actually in the same boat.
No possibility for real political participation
The spectrum of the Islamist elite in the Islamic Republic ranges from reformists to conservatives and onward to fundamentalists and extremists. While the former actually do complain of certain restrictions on political liberties and advocate for the compatibility of Islam and democracy, the political forces that might be called "religious reformers" can hardly be viewed as champions of democracy and human rights.
Although the "religious reformers" support a more tolerant Islam, their assertion of its compatibility with democracy and human rights has yet to be consistently demonstrated in practice. Rather, a kind of majority rule is endorsed in many cases, in which religious minorities and non-believers have little chance at political participation.
The European media has also failed for the most part to subject Hassan Rouhani's economic policy agenda to a thorough examination. Most economic analyses shed light on only one side of the coin – namely, the supposedly manifold potential and incentives for European companies in Iran. Many have argued that Iran's economy has recovered under Rouhani.
The flip side of the coin, however – and little is heard of this in most European media – is that political and economic power in Iran still lies mainly in the hands of unelected state and semi-state entities.