Rouhani: A Breath of Fresh Air

"So far he's [Rouhani] done what he said he would, the price of the dollar keeps coming down and a number of political prisoners have been released... not to mention his interactions with Obama and pushing to un-filter social media!" Said Omid, from Tehran as we spoke over the phone this past weekend.

"He sure may look like the rest of them, but he doesn't smell like any of them" The office worker by day, turned taxi driver by night joked before our conversation ended.

But Omid was not the only person singing praises for the new Iranian President. I reached out to another one of my sources, a professor at the prestigious Tehran University. While wishing to remain anonymous, he described Iran under Rouhani as much more "evolved" in comparison to months before when the controversial Ahmadinejad was in power. He further described Rouhani as a "unique" figure in the Islamic Republic and one whose government has brought on a much needed "culture of accountability."

As I spoke to other Iranians about their new president, Omid's words about Rouhani being different from the status quo of Iranian politicians stayed with me the most.

Leaning back in my chair I reminisced about the recent election's day in Iran, June 14, 2013.

As Iranians went to the polls, I recalled sitting glued to my laptop, analyzing stats and percentages of each candidate. The thought of ultra-conservative Saeed Jalili winning in yet another questionable ballot count made me cringe in my seat that night.

As the hours went by, I began to prepare for the worst.

I recalled picturing Jalili, standing at the podium at the UN General Assembly. Beads of cold sweat ran down the back of my neck as images of a stone-like Jalili, spewing anti-sematic, pro-Assad and further destructive rhetoric from the podium flashed before my eyes. I could see diplomats from other nations quickly marching out of the Assembly Hall as the determined Jalili carried on in the same fashion as Ahmadinejad did during his previous eight visits to New York.

In my imaginary General Assembly, Jalili was soon followed by Israel's Netanyahu along with a crudely drawn picture of a missile with red-lines all over it and a recycled warning to the world that Iran's new "mad man" was more dangerous than his predecessor.

But to my surprise and many others, Jalili finished a distant third to yet another nuclear negotiator. However, Hassan Rouhani, unlike Jalili, hailed from a reformer camp that sang tunes of change, peace and sincerity towards open negotiations with the West, especially the United States.

Nevertheless, having previously observed a reformer cleric take the presidency and utter the same cries as Rouhani, made me skeptical of the new president at first. But it was not just his kind smile, generic spectacles or cleric get-up that made me compare Hassan Rouhani to Mohammad Khatami, Iran's reformer president whose government was in power from 1997 till 2005.

Rouhani's promises sounded very similar to Khatami's unsuccessful domestic and foreign policies. Also, there were Rouhani's previous services in Khatami's cabinet that made me draw unfavorable comparisons between the two.

After all, it was Khatami who made similar promises of change and reform and yet during his presidency many Iranian newspapers were shut down while journalists were placed behind bars, not to mention the student uprising of 1999, which was quickly followed by swift government action in the forms of batons, bullets and prisons ripe with torture and executions.

But as soon as Rouhani took office, my skepticism began to fade away.

Over the past two months, Rouhani's administration has quickly moved to restore relations with the International Community and expressed desires to discuss the country's nuclear program, which Rouhani in a recent interview with NBC proclaimed to be peaceful.

There has also been an improvement in his administration's human rights department as a number of well documented activists and political prisoners were released from prison in the past few weeks. Additionally, Rouhani and his top cabinet members have gone as far as announcing "Rosh Hashanah" greetings on popular social media outlets. Acts that were certainly unheard of during Ahmadinejad's reign of despair.

These acts have certainly added to Rouhani's popularity in the West as President Obama and his administration have gone as far as offering Iran's President direct meetings and diplomatic negotiations.

While an encounter between the two presidents, during the UN General Assembly proved to be "too complicated" back in Iran and for the country's upper echelons, nevertheless, it should be noted that Rouhani, unlike those before him is much more willing to reach out and negotiate.

In his speech at the General Assembly, Rouhani highlighted that Iran was "prepared to engage in immediate time-bound and result-oriented negotiations to achieve solution" to Iran's nuclear debate. He denounced the use of any weapons of mass destruction while paying homage to the "innocent people of Syria and Iraq." Rouhani even went as far as to quote the Torah and a Persian poet, while stating that "Peace in within reach."

Sadly his entire speech was delivered to an empty Israeli panel.

Distancing himself further from the controversial Ahmadinejad, Rouhani, in an interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour, on the topic of the Holocaust, indicated that while, he may not be a "historian," he, nevertheless condemns the crimes that the Nazi's inflicted on Jews and non-Jews.

While I am by no means a supporter of the Islamic Republic and believe the nation's deplorable human rights records should be front and center of any discussions, however with the side of cautious optimism at hand, open negotiations on Iran's nuclear issue and the potential removal of sanctions should be conducted now as they are beneficial to both countries and certainly to the people of Iran, not to mention the security of an already hostile region.

In addition, both Iran and the United States in the past 35 years have lacked leadership that is as coherent and willing to negotiate as demonstrated by the two men who took the ultimate global podium recently in downtown Manhattan.

This may not be the case in a few years.

While it was wishful to believe that the two leaders were going to "meet" at the UN, given nearly 35 years of mistrust between the two governments, it should however be noted that in Rouhani Iran has a rational actor that displayed rays of hope that may finally end the antagonism that exists between the two great civilizations.

By next year this time we should have a better picture into his intentions. Till then, Rouhani is certainly a breath of fresh in the Islamic Republic's repertoire of failed presidents.

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