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After Neda and Rowhani, Will Iran Reform?

June 25, 2013 by Kelley Currie

In honor of the Iranian people who once again were denied free and fair elections, the Freedom Collection blog is highlighting Iran this week. We have asked a number of leaders in the democracy promotion community to answer the following questions:

Where is Iran on its path toward liberalization? And is the demise of the clerical regime a necessary prerequisite for democratization?

We will be posting responses throughout the week.

In the wake of the surprisingly large victory by centrist candidate Hussein Rowhani in Iran’s recent presidential election, it is a good time to revisit the legacy of the 2009 Green Movement and the woman who embodied it for many – Neda Agha-Soltan. Her brutal death at the hands of a sniper, presumed to be from the regime, became the symbol of the clash between the Iranian theocracy’s grim determination to bend that society to their will, and the more hopeful aspirations of millions of young Iranian women and men to make free choices about both their own lives and the future of their country.

On the surface, the clerics remain firmly in charge of Iran’s political system and the Green Movement seems to have fallen fall short in its calls for political change. The Guardian Council – the clerical body that makes the final determination on whether candidates are sufficiently Islamic – again barred women from running for president, and the basij (morality police) was out in full force prior to the elections. Women are still subjected to horrific abuses, and rights advocates such as Asieh Amini are endlessly harassed. Iran’s most famous human and women’s rights activist, Dr. Shirin Ebadi, remains exiled in London while her husband is barred from leaving Tehran. And leading figures from the Green Movement remain imprisoned or under house arrest.

But while the Green Movement failed to achieve its immediate goals, there has been a definite change in how the Iranian regime is responding to the demands of its impatient and unhappy electorate. Moderates and reformers – including women – strategically coalesced around Rowhani and turned out in high numbers to ensure his victory. The regime has allowed the results to stand, raising hopes that reforms may be forthcoming. While Rowhani is a regime insider, he was alone among the candidates in talking about the need to end an “era of extremism” and improve relations with the West – another theme that women interviewed before the elections identified as important. Since their support was critical to Rowhani’s margin of victory in this election, the impatience of women and youth with the status quo will continue to put pressure on him and the regime.

Nevertheless, the continued dominance of the ultraconservative clerics ensures that even if Rowhani wants to pursue reforms, he must operate within a system that mercilessly represses women in the name of religion and places the narrow views of a few old men above the dreams of the rest of the country. But Neda’s dream – of personal and political freedoms, equality under the law and in daily life, and a government to be proud of – remains relevant for millions of women and men in Iran. For now they are showing patience and trying move toward this dream through the ballot box, but they have shown in the past they are willing to pay a higher price in the pursuit of liberty.

Kelley Currie is a special contributor to the Freedom Collection blog. Kelley is a Senior Fellow with the Project 2049 Institute. Prior to joining the Institute, Kelley served as an advisor to Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs. 

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