Earlier this month Iran elected a new president, Hassan Rowhani, who will take over for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was ineligible to run for a third term. We asked Val Moghadam, a professor of sociology and international affairs and director of the international affairs department, to examine how Iran’s new president might transform his country’s relationship with the United States.
President-elect Hassan Rowhani called the state of relations between the U.S. and Iran “an old wound, which must be healed.” How can he change the nature of the relationship between the two countries?
There is bad blood on both sides because of past events, so changes are not entirely up to Iran or its new president. On the Iranian side, the 1953 coup d’état against Prime Minister Mossadegh orchestrated in part by the U.S. government; the long years of support of the Shah accompanied by the sale of numerous and unnecessary armaments; and the support for Iraq during the long Iran-Iraq war all remain as divisive issues. On the American side, the taking of U.S. embassy staff as hostages after the revolution remains a major hurdle.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the U.S. shut a window of opportunity when the government of reformist president Khatami sent condolences and indicated that it was ready to cooperate in ending terrorism emanating from Afghanistan, but the Bush regime chose to ignore that olive branch. In recent years the already-tense relationship has become especially strained, not only because of Iran’s nuclear program and former president Ahmadinejad’s policies but also because the Iranian regime feels that the U.S. is part of an international plan to marginalize and undermine the country’s influence regionally and exacerbate the longstanding Sunni-Shia divide.
In such a context, building bridges, confidence, and trust can only occur if there is sufficient political will on both sides. A third party can mediate talks or civil society groups can prepare joint activities to improve relations and push their respective governments to begin talks. That the new president has even mentioned the healing of the old wound is a very positive sign, though it must be noted that there will be resistance on both the Iranian and American sides.
Rowhani is pledging to continue Iran’s nuclear program, but said it will move forward with more transparency. Is that a kind of compromise the United States and the international community may be willing to accept?
Under international law, countries are able to develop nuclear programs within certain parameters. Iran insists that it has been doing so, but there is so much distrust internationally that Iran’s statements are discounted. I am sure that there are elements within the Iranian regime that would like to develop nuclear weapons, and they wonder why Israel, Pakistan, and India were able to do so in secrecy and without major international challenges or sanctions.
My own view is that Iran should have been investing in labor-intensive industries and in sectors that would better incorporate women and young people. The oil, gas, and nuclear industries are capital-intensive and male-intensive; they do not generate many jobs and certainly not many jobs for women. Iran, however, has embarked on this course, and so transparency is most definitely better than the existing practices of secrecy and subterfuge.
How might Rowhani’s domestic policies differ from those under President Ahmadinejad?
Some of the biggest changes may come in the area of gender. In previous research, I have identified shifts in the gender regime over three periods—the highly ideological Khomeini era in the 1980s, the period of reform under Rafsanjani and Khatami, and the neofundamentalist Ahmadinejad era. Over time there has been a degree of feminization of civil society and within higher education. But if we examine measures such as the female share of seats in parliament (2 percent) or of jobs in the salaried labor force (16 percent), the masculine nature of the gender regime becomes manifestly clear.
The question then is whether the new president is willing to change the gender regime in a manner consistent with the global women’s rights agenda, the demands of Iranian women for equality, and the imperatives of democratization and economic growth. The claim that Iran’s polity is a democracy is undermined not only by political restrictions but also by the exclusion of women from meaningful political representation and decision-making. The Iranian economy probably also suffers from the marginal role of women in the labor force. Historical studies of the U.S. economy and more recent cross-national research show the positive effects of women’s economic participation on economic growth.
The new president has declared his intention to address women’s rights. For this to occur, he needs to overturn discriminatory laws; introduce affirmative action to integrate Iran’s highly educated female population into decision-making positions across various domain; facilitate maternal employment of working-class women through paid maternity leaves covered by social insurance, along with childcare facilities; release women political prisoners including women’s rights activists; and welcome back those in exile.