As an Anglican ex-bishop, I can tell you: Iran's new president could be our best hope for peace

If President Hassan Rouhani is anything like his mentor, peace has another chance

27 July 2013

9:00 AM

27 July 2013

9:00 AM

The installation of Hassan Rouhani as President of Iran next month heralds a new chapter for the country. It is clear that he was elected not only because it was felt — both at the highest levels and by the people — that he was best placed to negotiate with the West on Iran’s nuclear programme but also because he was the candidate most likely to appeal to reform-hungry Iranians.

Rouhani is a protégé of the former president Muhammed Khatami, with whom I have had the chance to work. When he was President, I spent a whole day with him meeting political, civil society and religious leaders. Visiting him in Iran, I was always struck by his learning and his humility. Khatami knew about the puritan origins of the United States and the ways that tension between religious beliefs and liberty was resolved. He never tired of pointing out similarities between the difficulties of the Iranian experience and the founding of America. In opposition to the then fashionable ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis, he launched his own ‘dialogue of civilisations’ programme.

Khatami’s presidency failed because the West, especially the US, did not respond adequately to his overtures, but also because he ran into opposition from hard-liners. His failure showed where real power resided — with the ‘Ulama’, the legal authority made up of the Guardianship of the Revolution, and with the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The popular portrayal of Iran as a nation either driven by Islamic revolutionary fervour or by the periodic welling up of liberal political dissent does not do justice to the complexity of this society. There is constant interplay between the ancient civilisation of Iran and Islam in its political form. Iranians understand their identity as continuous with the pre-Islamic as well as the Islamic periods. Their attitude to art, for instance, particularly pictorial and even religious art, is quite different from the rest of the Islamic world’s.

Ayatollah Khomeini, the architect of the revolution, developed the notion of Wilayet-i-Faqui: the custodianship of the nation by Islamic Islamic jurists. Although there are some precedents for this in the constitutional history of Iran, such a comprehensive claim to the supremacy of Sharia and its interpreters strikes many as novel and there have been various challenges to it.

On the one hand there are those Shia divines who regard their task as simply the interpretation of the Quran, the Sunnah (the practice of the Prophet) and Fiqh, or jurisprudence; and so stay away from politics. On the other hand, there is a growing apocalyptic discourse about the return of the Mahdi, the imam expected before the climax of history who will restore justice among the nations and vindicate his own people. The outgoing President Ahmadinejad succeeded in harnessing the yearning for a better future embodied in this belief to his own ends. It remains true, nevertheless, that such beliefs can be used more positively to give direction and a sense of destiny to the people and even to be the basis for dialogue with those of other faiths, such as Jews and Christians, whose beliefs also have an eschatological dimension.

Which direction will Mr Rouhani take? The West is anxious to see how Mr Rouhani is to renew and augment his previous persona as chief negotiator for Iran on its nuclear ambitions. It will also want him to encourage negotiations between the Assad regime (which Iran supports) and the Syrian opposition. There will, similarly, be an expectation that Iran will use its influence to calm restive Shia populations in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia.

It should be recognised, once and for all, that the West’s interest in Iranian foreign policy cannot be separated from Iran’s internal security and human rights situation. There will be little progress in Iran’s relations with the international community without progress in its human rights policies and the gradual emergence of a more inclusive and plural society.

For some years, a general ferment has been building in Iranian society. The different elements that make this up are mutually antagonistic and finding a resolution among them will be one of the major challenges of this presidency. There is, first of all, the continuing strength of the revolutionary establishment — not only of the hardline religious leaders but their numerous followers in the Revolutionary Guard and their vigilante army, the Basiji. Their activities are well-financed through the Bonyad foundation, which received the properties and funds of those belonging to the ancien regime, as well as the assets of foreign nations deemed inimical to Iran. Moreover, Iran has a strong current of Mahdist apocalypticism which can be deployed in support of anti-western or anti-Sunni actions, as it was, for example, during the Iran-Iraq war. Yet perhaps more widespread is the yearning among young people, women and the urban middle classes for more freedom of information, political opinion and artistic and literary expression, as well as a more liberal attitude towards behaviour, dress and relationships between the sexes.

The sorry tale of how religious and ethnic minorities have been treated in post-revolutionary Iran must be addressed. The ancient Jewish and Christian populations have halved, the Zoroastrians (the indigenous religion) have fared even worse than that and the persecution of the Baha’is has been appalling. Even Sunni Muslims lack basic freedoms, and ethnic groups like the Arabs, Kurds and Baluch have their own grievances. Rouhani ought to press for freedom of worship. The Iranian regime’s fear of ‘house churches’ has prevented even pastors and priests from visiting members of their congregation. Christian and Baha’i prisoners of conscience should be released immediately and unconditionally. The property of churches and other religious groups seized at the Revolution should be returned and, where this is not possible, compensation provided.

Such actions would provide a sound basis for the re-opening of the dialogue of civilisations which President Khatami had initiated and the recommencement of dialogue between the different communities in Iran. Let us pray that the coming regime will be inspired by that rather than the more recent siren voices which have led it away from its own civilisation.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Michael Nazir-Ali is a former Bishop of Rochester, and director of the Oxford Centre for Training, Research, Advocacy and Dialogue.

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  • Augustus

    There’s nothing wrong with wishful thinking, unless, of course, it gets confused with serious thinking. You may say that Rouhani campaigned on the promise of peace and reconciliation, but what exactly are promises made by politicians of the Iranian Revolution worth? This man is a political clergyman, a loyal acolyte of Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader and self-proclaimed ‘shadow of God on Earth’. Were that not so, Khamenei would not permit Rouhani to become Iran’s president. After all, out of nearly 700 candidates only eight were allowed to run. We in the West are the enemy. Rouhani may be different from the run-of-the-mill Iranian jihandist: He speaks our language, he studied in Scotland, he certainly has insights into the psychology of the Westerner. That’s probably why he was made president, to create a wedge between the United States and its European allies so that Iran could import nuclear technology without incurring Western penalties. Rouhani’s moderation is simply a stylistic stance,not substantive at all. To him negotiations means persuading the enemy to let down his guard.

    Iran’s ruling elite is incapable of moderation, unconcerned about avoiding confrontation, and disinterested in establishing amicable relations. In the very near future Western leaders will have to decide whether, on their watch, the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism, a self-proclaimed revolutionary jihadist regime that calls America ‘Satan incarnate’, will be permitted to acquire the nuclear weapons it needs to dominate the Middle East and reshape the world order.

    • Frank P

      You geddit, Augustus!

    • last solfa

      You will instantly know you’re talking crap as soon as you stop reading HuffPo or JPost.
      Iran’s ruling elite repeatedly asked for bilateral talks and improvement of relationships with the US during Khatami era, just to be labelled part of “axis of evil” by GWB.

      Dick Cheney famously said ” [If we] control Iran, we control Eurasia, we control the world.”

      P.S. Self-proclaimed? really? you know that 99.3% of people voted for “Yes” to constitution of the Islamic Republic regime in a 1979 referendum.

      • Augustus

        Is it not true that Rouhani has expressed the view that Iran’s strategic interests are best served not by obtaining just one nuclear weapon, but by developing an industrial-size nuclear capability to manufacture dozens of them? Achieving that requires spinning centrifuges and stocking up on enriched uranium until there is enough for the ability to make weapons-grade uranium so quickly that neither the U.N. inspectors, nor intelligence agencies would even be aware it’s happening.

        When Khatami was president there was indeed an overt policy of negotiation and confidence building with the West, but what about the covert policy? Wasn’t there simply a continuation of advancement towards a nuclear weapons capability? How wonderful it would be if, within Iran’s ruling elite, there was indeed a voice of moderation eager to avoid a confrontation with the West and establish amicable relations. But that is not the reality.

        • last solfa

          The premise of your argument is that Iran’s nuclear program is for weapons purposes, which is basically refuted by all American intelligence agencies unanimously, which makes your whole point just speculation, with no hard evidence. To put speculations as basis of systematically massacring innocent citizens through sanctions which cause starvation and shortage of medicine, is simply barbaric.

          • Augustus

            Food and medicine fall under humanitarian trade, which, as far as I know, has not been subject to economic sanctions. But establishing a de facto oil embargo against Iran as well as a significant reduction in non-humanitarian commercial trade is really the only way to stay on track. Because time is fast running out on peaceful options to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons of mass destruction.

          • last solfa


        • Guest

          + I see some Ahmadinejad influence in your way of answering questions with questions.

        • Claude Boels

          if iran has better relations with west, then where is the problem if they have some nuclear capability or weapons ?

      • Augustus

        “you know that 99.3% of people voted for “Yes” to constitution of the Islamic Republic regime in a 1979 referendum.”

        And what became of that yearning for freedom? Nothing! Iran is not a free country. No doubt the opposition parties to the Islamic Republic regime discovered that in the infamous Ewin prison. Iranians thought that their country would be completely independent from the outside world. That desire was, however, realized. Iran and North Korea are the most politically independent countries on Earth. What was at the heart of the revolution? The Shah was criticized for having made Iran dependent on Western countries. The revolutionaries also thought that the Shah had made the Iranian economy dependent on oil exports. But Islamic Iran is not even able to provide its people with enough food without imports. Only a few countries mow matter to them such as China and India. And Russia replaced America in military matters. Ironically, more than 80% of the Iranian economy still ended up depending on oil exports. And what was the result of all this revolutionary zeal? All decisions in the Republic, including those made in parliament, can be vetoed by the Supreme Leader. And the symbolic president of the Republic can himself only be chosen if the Supreme Leader supports him. Khomeini’s legacy is Islamic Fascism, in a country totally dependent on a bankrupt system, both economically and morally, with an oppressed population.

        • last solfa

          I was not commenting on whether or not Iran is a free country. I was correcting your misinformation (“self-proclaimed”).
          As for my opinions on the Islamic Republic regime, on many regards they are more or less aligned with yours.
          It is true Iran has become politically isolated in relation to Western powers, however, the doctrine of Iranian politics, particularly in the last decade was rather based on gathering popularity and influence within the less developed countries. (This is why it’s laughable to hear Western politicians saying “the world is concerned with the Iranian nuclear program” whilst all 120 countries of the non-aligned movement, which are the majority of countries in the world unanimously support Iranian nuclear program.)
          It is true that Iran’s economy immensely relies on oil, but it is also true that Iran has developed to become the 17th largest economy in the world and a member of Next Eleven.

          Since 1979, the education of and work conditions for Iranian women have dramatically improved, making Iran the no.1 country in the world in terms of female-to-male education ratio.

          Similarly, in terms of scientific and technological advancements, despite crippling sanctions, Iran has evolved to become a crucial player (in fact no.1 in the world in terms of growth of science and technology according to the UK gov among others), the 9th most advanced country in nano technology, one of the only 9 countries with a satellite in the space, one of the only countries with nuclear energy technology, and the list goes on forever if you look at the international rankings.

          None of above statements are meant to be an apology for brutal Iranian regime and its human rights condition (although still far better than the Western Arab allies in the region), but I only made a comparison between Shah’s so-called secular government and the Islamic Republic. You’re paint a black picture through manipulation and personal hatred whilst the factual information prove otherwise to your thesis in many areas.

          • Augustus

            The impact of sanctions is hard to gauge with precision because Tehran conceals basic economic facts. For example: If the current level of Iran’s accessible foreign exchange reserves is north of US$100 billion, the regime can soldier on for a long time. If, however, as some analysts believe, the Iranians have only between $20 billion and $30 billion in their coffers with a rapid rate of depletion, they could be facing imminent economic collapse.

          • Augustus

            “whilst all 120 countries of the non-aligned movement, which are the majority of countries in the world unanimously support Iranian nuclear program.)”

            Big deal! They’re Just a club of nations, most of which don’t need much of an excuse to have a basic beef with America and the West.

        • Claude Boels

          there is no military SOLUTION to iran nuclear issue

          just once again james mattis CENTCOM COMMANDER recalled.

          west will have to disarme israrli nukes, or get used with a nuclear “capable” or armed iran.

    • Claude Boels

      there is no military SOLUTION to iran nuclear issue

      just once again james mattis CENTCOM COMMANDER recalled.

      west will have to disarme israrli nukes, or get used with a nuclear “capable” or armed iran.

      is that simple

  • Frank P

    I recommend this article to the ex-Bishop:


    … though I must say, I’m amazed that someone can construct an analysis of the ‘best hope for peace in the middle east’ without mentioning Egypt, Israel or the US of A. But his teasing out of the sectarian conflicts and the history of the causes is interesting. Shame the author has such an unfortunate surname … but I suppose that’s not his fault.

    • last solfa

      The article you mentioned in Telegraph is more of a disclaimer of the Western allies’ constant efforts to widen the Shia/Sunni gap and keep the region in turmoil.

  • Farhang

    This is a a wise and informative article. Although some people in the West are still fond of demonizing the Iranian government and people, they should realize that time moves on and people change. There were deadly revolutions and civil wars in Britain, France, the United States, Russia, China and elsewhere, every bit as ugly as the Iranian revolution, but in time they lost their revolutionary zeal and learned to live and let live.

    The Iranian revolution is no exception. The earlier election of President Mohammad Khatami and now Dr. Hassan Rouhani shows that the majority of Iranians are tired of radicalism and extremism and are turning towards moderation and interaction with the outside world. This should be welcomed and encouraged by the West. Of course, Rouhani can fail as did President Khatami who after extending a hand of friendship towards the West and supporting the Americans win in Afghanistan was included in the “Axis of Evil”. On the other hand, the West can show a more positive attitude and realize that in the volatile Middle East, Iran, a rich country with an ancient civilization and 78 million youthful and educated population, can play a positive role in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and in the battle against al-Qaida and the jihadists. It is time to give up old prejudices.

    • Frank P

      “It is time to give up old prejudices” … and submit to the good graces of Sharia Law and the coming caliphate; you Dhimmis.

      When did you take over as the MB public relations officer at OQS, Frahang?

    • Augustus

      The exiled Iranian opposition Rajavi has just recently sharply criticized President Rouhani in Paris. Rouhani is a veteran official of the regime, according to Rajavi, and is “employed by the machine of war and repression”. Rajavi,, who is president of the National Council of resistance to Iran, reckons that Rouhani’s election may be “the last phase before the regime falls” and that he is no moderate because he held senior posts in previous governments which always “suppressed the Iranian population” while he “always supported Tehran’s regime.”

      • last solfa

        The irony is “exiled Iranian opposition” group (MEK led by Rajavi) you’re referring to has just been put off the States Department list of terrorist organizations after more than a decade.
        They’re a well-known as a terrorist group within Iranian population and have long lost their influence in Iranian politics. As a matter of fact, nobody takes Rajavi seriously – maybe apart from you.

        • Augustus

          “So long as this regime is in power, nothing will change. The only solution is the overthrow of the clerical regime. As the Iranian Resistance’s Leader Massoud Rajavi said, “the disruption of the evil regime’s internal equilibrium testifies to the Supreme Leader’s weakness and unstable situation. This is a welcome development for the Iranian people because it offers an opportunity for the advancement of the resistance and the uprising.” Nevertheless, as I said after the announcement of the results, we say to the regime’s new president: Nothing will change so long as freedom of expression and human rights are non-existent, so long as political prisoners and political parties are not free, so long as the regime’s intransigent policy in Syria and Iraq remains intact and so long as the regime insists on obtaining nuclear weapons. This is because the Supreme Leader is well aware that any serious change in these policies would lead to the overthrow of the regime in its entirety. Nevertheless, we say, go ahead, this is your chance.

          The new president of the clerical regime, who has come to the scene with the slogan of moderation, is a veteran functionary of the regime’s machinery of war, security and repression. Nevertheless, we say to those western countries and appeasers who are trying in vain to portray such a figure as a moderate then please proceed, and if you can, then compel the regime to retreat from its nuclear program, i.e., drink the chalice of poison. If you can, then compel the mullahs to stop interfering in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. But, I warn that you should not waste any opportunities. After a decade of futile talks, you should not be beguiled by someone who boasts of being quite adept at deceiving westerners. Do not be fooled once again. You must prevent the regime before its nuclear bomb drops on people of the world.

          We want a non-nuclear Iran, free of weapons of mass destruction.
          We are not saying that the mullahs must go so that we could replace them.
          We are saying that the Iranian people’s vote, choice and opinion must have sovereignty.
          We have come to sacrifice ourselves for the Iranian people’s free choice.
          This choice will herald trust, freedom and justice in Iran. And it shall be so.

          Supporters of the resistance,
          You ask what our policy is and what path lies ahead of us?
          The answer is to carry on the fight in all its forms, everywhere and with full power.
          You ask what our goal is?
          The answer is to establish freedom, democracy and equality in the fettered Iran.”
          -Maryam Rajavi, Paris, June 2013

      • Dakota_Doc

        Rajavi is not an “exiled opposition” leader. He is a terrorist with basically no support within Iranian community inside or outside of Iran. Anyone who considers this egomaniac as an opposition leader needs to check with a psychiatrist.

    • Augustus

      “…the West can show a more positive attitude…”

      So what you’re saying is that it would be a mistake for the West not to test whether Dr. Rouhani’s election represents a real opportunity for progress. At the same time, don’t you think he should be judged by his actions, not his rhetoric, and that any offers put to him won’t be weakened or sweetened in exchange for his big smile? Is it so difficult to understand that backpedalling now, signals only an eagerness to appease? Rouhani will simply say to the hardliners: “You see how simple this can be? Do you finally understand why it is more effective to attract flies with honey than with vinegar? And do you further grasp that, when you do it my way, the flies become much easier to swat at a time of our choosing?”

  • egads9

    We can talk about the current status of all of the non-Shiite religious groups in Iran as long as we want, but in reality it all comes down to the Baha’is. However the Baha’i situation goes, so goes Iran. For the regime to actually recognize Baha’is, not only as equal citizens, but as human beings, would be a colossal sea change (as unlikely as it might be for it to occur right now). In Iran, a Baha’i can be imprisoned or killed without impunity, for no reason, as you or I might swat a fly – “appalling” doesn’t even begin to adequately describe their treatment.

    Farhang, you are correct, it’s time for EVERYONE to give up on old prejudices. Especially those against Baha’is.

    • Augustus

      Quite right. The bahais are the ‘Jews’ of Iran. The bahai religion was a 19th Century offshoot of Shiism and was established in Azerbaijan and Iran. The founder intended to unite all religions in one religion. Most Iranians probably don’t know what the bahai religion is because they’ve been indoctrinated by mullahs calling them infidels, and that they’re immoral and dangerous people. They perform secret bloodthirsty rituals, and in sexual matters are supposed to have no moral compass. So goes the official propaganda. They even say the religion was invented by the British to damage islam. And according to the mullahs the bahais are unclean.

  • Fasdunkle

    “Ayatollah Khomeini, the architect of the revolution”

    he stole the revolution

  • Augustus

    Actually, the overriding reason that this candidate won the recent election in Iran is the economy.The arch-conservative rulers led by Ayatollah Khamenei have been set on a confrontation course which threatened to isolate the country more and more. Last year’s sanctions by the West effected, amongst other things, financial transactions with Iran. That has definitely further affected Iran’s gross national product, and unemployment has also increased substantially. It is estimated that 40% of the population now live below the poverty line. When President Ahmadinejad took office in 2005 it was about 20%.

    As for Dr. Rouhani’s persona as chief negotiator for Iran on its nuclear ambitions, one can only point out that not much research is required to confirm that Rouhani has said anything even to suggest that he opposes Iran’s support for terrorism abroad (including past attempts to blow up planes and restaurants in the U.S.), gross violations of human rights domestically, threats of genocide against Israelis and, of course, its illegal nuclear weapons programme. As noted elsewhere (by someone whose smile is genuine) he is a ‘veteran functionary of the regime’s machinery of war, security and repression’, and as such the West needs to ‘speak softly and carry a big stick’ where this man is concerned.

  • Wraith7216

    The best hope for peace is Americans taking back their foreign policy from Aipac, their pet bought and paid for legislators, th 5th column of “dual citizens” in U.S. government, and an MSM that passes off Israeli hasbara as “news from the middle east”. Till that happens there is no hope for peace. On an optimistic note, that we haven’t gone to war yet in spite of the best efforts of the above shows how deeply unpopular this war, spending more blood and treasure for Israel, is among the American people. Thanks to alternative news source available now, more people are waking up to the fact that our legislators aren’t on the Aipac payroll to look out for American interests. It will likely be a slow process, but in the long run the people will grow disgusted enough with these legislators abject servility to a foreign power to demand an end to it. Isreal will become a wedge issue, with only the right wing religious nut jobs with their masturbatory rapture fantasies will have anything to do with this rouge nation…

  • Ruvuma Legacy

    rev Micheal..with due respect..what do you know of Iran? you are a layman who should concentrate more on racism in UK your adopted country…and your adopted religion….than writing about Iran..your words do not carry any weight..whom are you imoressing upon…come on…..revrent..have a cup of ceylon tea and retire to your lambeth palace and solve the issues of christianity taht is facing immenses chLlenges from the secular lot..leave Iran to its own ways….