In the 18 months since Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was elected in June 2013, Iran has made a slow-but-steady effort to rebuild its economy. Rouhani had intended to set in motion a process that would encourage Iranians to believe in the viability of a nuclear deal, create a bottom-up economic recovery process, and “open up” Iran’s markets to international investors. In other words, he intended to be an economic reformer.
The international community took notice of Rouhani’s election as it became clear to world powers that Iranian politics had fundamentally changed. As he began making gains among his electoral base by emphasizing pragmatic values — no longer state-guided economy — leading candidates in Iran’s 2009 presidential elections were criticized for their lack of practical policies. The reform crowd perceived these arguments as simplistic and undemocratic.
This reality was best articulated by Hassan Rouhani himself. From the French newspaper Le Monde:
“As the reformist’s chief, President Hassan Rouhani, has made a solid effort to right the situation inside the Islamic Republic. His ‘soft power’ has not failed to bring out new leadership. Rouhani’s policies include the continued release of political prisoners, calling for the reform of the judiciary, including the reformation of the Intelligence Ministry, and an investigation into nuclear rights abuses. The government has already released 521 prisoners, including many social activists who had been jailed during the regime’s one-sided war against the people.”
Hassan Rouhani was an economic reformer from the beginning. Despite the increased, but tempered, pressure from the U.S. and western governments, Rouhani maintained Iran’s outreach to the international community. He worked to open Iran’s arms-length relationship with the rest of the world, establish a free and fair election, and prevent bloodshed between the regime and its opposition.
Iran’s economy has not yet shown the healthy, vibrant, potential that Rouhani envisioned it to have in the past 18 months. This, however, does not mean that Rouhani has failed. While the amount of direct investment and non-trade financing has been minimal, the step-by-step transition to an open market is happening. “In less than 18 months, the new Rouhani government has restored 100% of the economic relations with business and the West,” said Dr. Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, a senior researcher at Trend Analysis. “The last 18 months is by far the most active time in Iran’s external economic relations with the West. Rouhani’s economic policies have to be seen in this context.”
But what makes it important now?
If Rouhani was not able to provide Iran with a home-grown economic recovery, Iran’s international partners and the United States would have easily isolated Iran for non-compliance with the deal. Even with full global support, it is possible that Iran could have eventually escaped sanctions and been rewarded for their actions in order to secure their economic future. However, that is not what Rouhani sought. Rouhani has cultivated a nuclear policy where Iran is the partner, giving little credit to any side, and staying one step ahead of the clock.
This active lobbying from Iran has positioned them as a top global player and will have an impact on international relations in the future. Should these important foreign policies and economic decisions not go according to plan, then the country could see its international relations come apart. This is not a theory; it is already taking place.
Ali Alizadeh is a freelance journalist working from Los Angeles.