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Breaking Taboos

            The following article was originally published as Viewpoints No. 45 by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Haleh Esfandiari         

            The Rouhani government, barely 100 days old, has delivered what no other Iranian government had achieved since the initiation of Iran’s nuclear program: a deal between the United States and Iran. An agreement between the P5+1 (five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany) and Iran was announced in Geneva in the early morning hours of Sunday, November 24.

P5+1 Talks With Iran in Geneva, Switzerland
            The driving force behind the punishing unilateral, multilateral, and UN-imposed sanctions regime imposed on Iran was the United States; and these sanctions effectively broke the back of the Iranian economy. All along, Iran’s leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei; President Ahmadinejad, who left office only in August; commanders of the Revolutionary Guards; Friday prayer leaders; and other hardliners sang the same song: sanctions were ineffective; Iranians would weather any hardship. But this discourse could not be credibly sustained—not when the Iranian currency, the rial, lost 60 percent of its value, Iranian oil exports fell from 2.5 million barrels a day to 1.2 million barrels, inflation reached 40 percent; and not when the average Iranian found the cost of living crushing, when cheap Chinese and Indian goods flooded the market (undermining local industries because Iranian oil earnings could not be used elsewhere), when Iranian businessmen and the government were effectively shut out of the international financial and banking system; and when money in government coffers was fast disappearing. Clearly, something had to be done.
            It was Iran’s bazaar merchants, industrialists, bankers, and pragmatists among the politicians—men like former president Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani—who convinced the Supreme Leader that this situation was not sustainable. Hassan Rouhani, elected president in June on a platform that promised to resolve the nuclear deadlock, lift sanctions, and end Iran’s international isolation, should be given a chance to explore the possibility of a mutually acceptable nuclear accord and an end to sanctions. This meant talking to the Americans. Almost a decade ago the Supreme Leader had said in a speech in Mashad that he alone will decide when the right time is to talk to the Americans. The time had obviously come. 
            Significantly, when Rouhani announced a cabinet and appointed reformists, including pragmatic reformists like Mohammad Javad Zarif to head the foreign ministry, the Supreme Leader did not object—despite the fact that he had no love for the men who had served under the reformist president Mohammad Khatami a decade ago and despite the opposition of hardliners like Hassan Shariatmadari, the editor of Kayhan, a newspaper that speaks for the Intelligence Ministry and for the leader himself. Shariatmadari had urged parliament to reject Rouhani’s reformist selections for cabinet posts. But most, including Zarif, were confirmed.
            When Rouhani and Zarif came to New York to attend the opening of the UN General Assembly in September, Zarif broke one taboo when he held one-on-one discussions with his American counterpart, John Kerry. Rouhani broke an even bigger one when he took a phone call from President Obama on his way to the airport. Khamenei later, referring indirectly but unmistakably to the Rouhani-Obama conversation, said that some inappropriate things had occurred in New York. But the ice was broken, and even Khamenei endorsed his president’s diplomatic initiatives at the UN. It was these talks, and others Zarif held with foreign ministers of the P5+1 countries (there were officially unconfirmed reports of unpublicized meetings between Iranian and American officials), that led to a reconvening of the Iran-P5+1 negotiations—this time in Geneva. A first round of talks was held in October; the second in early November, and the third convened in Geneva last week.
            The Iranians, led by Zarif, came to Geneva this time well aware that the Israelis were opposed to any deal with Iran that fell short of entirely shutting down its nuclear program. They also knew that Israel had unlikely allies among the Arab states of the Persian Gulf countries, led by Saudi Arabia. The Gulf Arabs fear—indeed are terrified—that any agreement, no matter how modest, will provide the opening for the return of Iran as the “hegemonic” power to the region.
            Zarif also knew that his window of opportunity was short. If he could not take home an acceptable agreement in this or the next round of negotiations, Congress could impose another set of sanctions, aborting the negotiations and further punishing the already ailing Iranian economy. It was left to President Obama to attempt to persuade Israel and America’s Persian Gulf allies that a deal with Iran would not be a sellout and that the United States would not allow Iran to secure nuclear weapons. In this, he had limited success but clearly decided to proceed without Israeli or Arab blessings. The hard bargaining for the United States and its allies, and for the Iranians, took place in Geneva.
            Agreement on an interim deal was reached in the early hours of November 24. In brief, it freezes in place Iran’s nuclear program and rolls back significant parts of it in exchange for mild sanctions relief (estimated to be worth about $6 billion or $7 billion to Iran in released frozen Iranian funds and exportable goods). A “final” agreement is to be pounded out by the two sides over the next six months.
            Naturally, the terms of the agreement are being interpreted differently by officials in Washington and in Tehran. The Obama administration is strenuously defending and lauding the agreement. It prevents further expansion of Iran’s nuclear activities; bars currently idle centrifuges from being put in operation; requires Iran to transform its stock of 20 percent enriched uranium (but a step from fuel that can be used to make a bomb) to far less threatening forms of fuel; halts a range of activities at the heavy water facility at Arak; opens nuclear facilities at Fordow and Natanz to intensive inspections; commits Iran to address concerns about the possible military dimensions of its nuclear program; and, finally, provides a six-month window to hammer out a final agreement. The sanctions relief Iran is given is limited and reversible; and the most punishing sanctions, on oil sales and banking transactions, remain in place.
            The narrative officials are presenting in Tehran stresses the positives for Iran in the agreement. Rouhani noted that Iran retains the right to enrich; the progress it has achieved is secure activity at its major nuclear sites at Natanz, Bandar Abbas, Arak, and Isfahan to continue; sanctions are beginning to be lifted. He said nothing of the concessions Iran has made, nor of the intrusive inspections regime to which Iran has agreed. This is as it should be. The agreement in Geneva was framed to allow each side to take something home.
            But the United States with its P5+1 partners has gained a great deal; and Iran knows that if it fails to comply with its undertakings, or if no final agreement is reached in six months, sanctions relief will be reversed and the current sanctions regime will be tightened. For the moment, the agreement Rouhani and Zarif brought home from Geneva is being applauded at home. A huge crowd, mostly composed of young people, greeted Zarif at the airport when he returned from Geneva. Some hardliners are arguing Iran could have achieved better terms in Geneva. But most have lauded the Iranian team’s efforts. 
            The real work for the Iranian team is ahead of them. They will need to retain the support of the country, parliament, the hardliners, and of the leader. So far, Khamenei, without whose endorsement the Geneva agreement would not have been possible, seems to be on board. In an exchange of letters with President Rouhani on the signing of the Geneva agreement, he thanked and praised the negotiating team and attributed “this success” to “God’s grace and the support of the people of Iran.” He of course also emphasized that “firmness in the face of over-reaching demands” must remain the guideline of Iran’s officials.
Haleh Esfandiari is director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the author of “Reconstructed Lives: Women and Iran’s Islamic Revolution” and My Prison, My Home: One Woman’s Story of Captivity in Iran.”

Read Haleh Esfandiari's chapter on Iran's women's movement in “The Iran Primer” 


Photo credit: U.S. State Department

Rouhani: Challenges Ahead

Haleh Esfandiari

            The decisive election of Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s new president has been greeted around the world as a sign that Iranians are tired of hardline policies at home and abroad and are ready to embrace change. But the outcome also raises the question of how the new president might go about it, given Iran’s powerful clerical leadership and long history of quashing reform efforts.
      Rouhani will inherit from his predecessor a host of difficult, even insurmountable problems. In the past eight years, such limited freedoms as existed have been severely eroded. The economy is in shambles due to Western-imposed sanctions and outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reckless spending and misguided policies. With few real friends, Iran is internationally isolated, and its relations with the US and the Europeans are under strain over Iran’s nuclear program, its support for Assad in Syria, and its inflammatory rhetoric on Israel. Negotiations between Iran and the so-called 5+1 (five members of the UN Security Council and Germany) about Tehran’s nuclear program have been deadlocked.
            While he is considered a moderate, Rouhani comes to office as an insider. For sixteen years he was head of Iran’s National Security Council (NSC) and for two years Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator. Even today, he sits on the NSC as the personal representative of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. He served five terms in the Majlis, or parliament. He sits on two major state councils, one of which, the Assembly of Experts, will elect Khamenei’s successor whenever he passes away. In holding high office, Rouhani was more a team player than a maverick and continues to support many existing Iranian policies. On Syria, since his election he has offered only the formulaic non-answer that the Syrian people should decide their own future through elections.
            Critics have noted that Rouhani spoke in support of the harsh crackdown on student protesters at Tehran University in 1999—he later explained he was in the government at the time and could have not done otherwise. He also was silent when security forces brutally crushed protests following the contested 2009 presidential elections, and his explanation for that silence remains unconvincing: he was not then in the government, he said, the nature of the protests had changed, and the protesters were obligated to act within the laws.
            Yet Rouhani did not run his campaign as an insider. On many issues, including political freedoms, the growing presence of government informants among student and civil society associations, Iran’s international relations and its nuclear negotiations with the West, and the state of the economy, he used language and adopted a posture at odds with those of the ruling conservatives and, indirectly, of the supreme leader. While regime conservatives paint a rosy picture of Iran’s international standing, Rouhani spoke during the campaign of the “clouded visage” of Iran in the world. Conservatives describe Iran as the freest country in the world, but Rouhani spoke of the “the bowed silhouette” of freedom in the country, and of the need to free political prisoners. Both the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation, an Iranian human rights group in Washington, DC, and the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran estimate the number of political prisoners at any one time at around five hundred, although many hundreds more pass through the prison system for short periods of incarceration. Rouhani also promised to establish a ministry for women’s affairs, to pay attention to women’s rights, and to remove restrictions on women’s access to higher education imposed by the outgoing government. He also spoke vaguely of a “charter of rights” for all citizens.
            Regime hardliners have continued to attack their reformist counterparts as “seditionists,” while Rouhani, both during his campaign and in his first press conference after his victory, stressed the need for national reconciliation. He will be the president of all the Iranian people, he said.
            Rouhani also embraced and won the endorsement of two former presidents, Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami. This was significant because both men are identified with the reformist endeavor and have been the target of vicious attacks by the hardliners. Rafsanjani, a pragmatist and ultimate insider (and president in 1989–1997), has been marginalized in recent years due to his centrist policies; and the Council of Guardians, which rules on the qualifications of candidates for the office of president, vetoed his candidacy on the lame excuse that, at age seventy-eight, he was too old to spend more than a few hours a day tending to the presidency. Khatami (president in 1997–2005) ushered in an unprecedented period of expanded freedoms, only to be frustrated by a right-wing backlash.
            On the nuclear issue, Rouhani has not strayed far from the official Iranian position—that Iran has a right to enrich nuclear fuel and to the full nuclear cycle, even though it has no intention of weaponizing—but his tone has been far more conciliatory. He has spoken proudly of his success, as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, negotiating compromise agreements with the Europeans in 2003 and 2005. Former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw recalled that in the 2003 negotiations, Rouhani broke a deadlock by working the phones with Iran’s president and supreme leader, securing the flexibility to reach an agreement. In brief, he has a track record for looking for compromise and the middle ground, and he is offering greater transparency on Iran’s nuclear program.
            But the obstacles Rouhani faces are formidable. The internal security situation has grown worse in recent years. Journalists and intellectuals are routinely jailed for the mildest challenge to the ruling ideology. According to Amnesty International, Iran executed 314 individuals last year—one of the highest rates of execution in the world in relation to population size. Rouhani will win a lot of credit with the young and the urban middle class if he manages to remove the checkpoints, the security forces, and the morals police from the streets, close the secret detention centers, or if he secures freedom for political prisoners and the two opposition leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, who have endured house arrest for the last four years. Yet any attempt by Rouhani to ease controls over the press, civic associations, and political activity will be opposed by Iran’s ubiquitous security agencies and by the powerful Revolutionary Guards.
            The economy is in dire straits. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad squandered a huge influx of oil revenues on pet populist projects and liberal handouts, without generating much employment or investment in productive industry. Under the impact of sanctions, the Iranian currency has lost more than half its value against the US dollar. Iranian oil exports have been halved. Iran’s once substantial foreign exchange reserves have shrunk. Iranian banks have been virtually squeezed out of international transactions, and Iranian industries are having difficulty securing spare parts and raw materials.
            Rouhani understands what needs to be done to reset the economy on a more sensible course, but he is caught on the horns of a dilemma. He cannot resolve Iran’s economic problems without a significant easing of banking and other Western-imposed sanctions. At the same time, the US insists on maintaining sanctions until Iran’s nuclear posture changes; and Rouhani may not be able to persuade Iran’s leader to be more flexible on the nuclear issue unless sanctions are eased.
            However, Rouhani’s election has aroused hopes and a sense of movement and possibilities—and pressure from the left to move quickly on multiple issues. Several senior clerics, congratulating Rouhani on his election, have urged him to address the problems of unemployment, inflation, moral decline, political division, and restrictions on political freedoms. Ayatollah Dastghaib, a senior cleric from Shiraz, called on Rouhani to expedite the release of Karroubi, Mousavi, and Mousavi’s wife, Zahra Rahnavard. There are other senior clerics, concerned at the mismanagement and the direction of the country under Ahmadinejad, who would support Rouhani’s efforts; but it is also the case that most of the senior clergy have been intimidated by the hardliners and have been relatively silent in recent years.
            Rouhani’s powers are limited: he cannot appoint judges or the chief of the judiciary; he cannot appoint the chiefs of the security forces. But one of his predecessors, Mohammad Khatami, succeeded in removing the intelligence minister—twice—reining in the ministry and purging it of its most notorious elements. Khatami also succeeded in lifting restrictions on the press, book publishing and political association. The security services are much stronger today, but Rouhani has a model he can emulate. And as president, he can at least provide a moral voice and speak out against the widespread violation of human rights.
            Clearly Rouhani’s task will not be easy. He will need time; he will need to pick his battles carefully; he will need to show progress without alienating the real centers of power in Iran; he will need support and understanding abroad. And he will need a great deal of luck.
This article was originally published on The New York Review of Books blog.
Haleh Esfandiari is director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the author of “Reconstructed Lives: Women and Iran’s Islamic Revolution” and My Prison, My Home: One Woman’s Story of Captivity in Iran.”

Photo Credit: Hassan Rouhani's official Facebook page and promotional materials for the 2013 presidential campaign

Iran Curtails Female Education

Haleh Esfandiari 

Why are 36 Iranian universities now barring women from 77 academic fields, including engineering, accounting, education, counseling, and chemistry?
Rather than announcing across the board restrictions on women in higher education, the government has cleverly left it to individual universities to implement these new policies.  Universities are acting individually to adopt quota systems favoring men. The goal is to limit the number of women in certain disciplines or to bar them altogether from certain fields of study. Some universities are enforcing single sex classes and are requiring professors to teach the same course twice.
The Ministry of Higher Education has remained inexplicitly silent in the face of these measures, and many interpret this silence as approval. By separating male and female students, university authorities also hope to limit interaction between the sexes.
In recent years, women have been winning more places in universities in competitive, nation-wide exams. These new measures seem intended to redress the balance in men’s favor. So far, no university has adopted a policy of single sex faculty, such as men restricted to teaching male students and women restricted to teaching only female students—although that reversal seems more possible now too. In the early years of the revolution, the regime toyed with the idea of segregating university classes and barred women from some fields of study, including agriculture and veterinary sciences. But segregation proved impractical and was never implemented, and women gradually gained access to all disciplines.
Iran is now reverting to the failed policies of the past. The decision by Qom University, located in a shrine city and the center of religious learning in Iran, not to allow women to study economics, commerce or industrial engineering may not be surprising. But Tehran University’s decision was unexpected. It is Iran’s oldest institution of higher education. It pioneered coeducation when it opened in 1936. Tehran University is now accepting only male students in a number of engineering fields and also in mining, forestry and even mathematics.
What are the politics behind these sweeping new restrictions? Why now? Is it related to the role that women played in the 2009 protests against the disputed presidential election?
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government is chauvinist about women generally. Barring women from certain fields of study comes hand-in-hand with the reversal of Iran’s family planning program—one of the most successful in the world. Iran’s Supreme Leader recently described the family planning program as misguided and called on women to have larger families.
But politics may also be a factor in the education restrictions, partly because young educated women were at the forefront of street protests after his contested reelection in 2009. Worldwide, levels of education and activism often overlap. Education can also affect the national social structure. In Iran, for example, the legal age of marriage for girls is 13, but the mean age of marriage is 23. A woman of 23 is likely to have experienced some level of higher education and be less prepared to agree to marry a man less educated than she is.
In 1998, two decades after the Islamic Revolution, Iran was cited as one of the top ten countries worldwide that had closed the gender gap between boys and girls in education. For several years, more than 60 percent of the university student body was female. So what impact will this decision have on the progress achieved in recent years?
After initial hesitation, the post-revolution government built on the foundation laid by the monarchy to provide women with equal access to education at all levels. Traditional families also sought higher education for their daughters because they felt comfortable allowing them to live in other cities to attend universities and live in dormitories or even on their own. Women across the country excelled in university entrance exams. During the reformist presidency of Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), the fact that 60 per cent of university student body was female was widely seen as a major achievement.
In 2006, a Tehran taxi driver proudly recounted how his daughter was studying at Isfahan University and was sharing an apartment with four other girls. Four young women living alone and unchaperoned in a large and distant city! This would have been unheard before the revolution.
The impact of these recent decisions, which indicate the growing conservative influence, are almost certain to deepen discontent among young women. University degrees are key to employment in an economy where good jobs are scarce. The rate of unemployment among those under thirty already stands at over 20 percent; among women, it is over 28 percent. The decision actually risks mobilizing more women in future protests.
Why is the government reducing gender quotas – reportedly by 30 to 40 percent – for
traditionally accepted fields, such as education, economics, administration, psychology,
library services and literature?
It reflects a fear of educated and powerful women who are aware of their rights
and frustrated about discrimination. Educated women also challenge the culture of men breadwinners and heads of family. The Ahmadinejad government seems to think it can discourage women from pursuing higher education if universities introduce a quota system in favor of men, segregate classes and bar women from many fields of study.
Women may now respond by pursuing higher education through the internet, which the government may have a harder time restricting. Over the last three decades,
Iranian women have shown again and again they can come up with new ways of pursuing their goals and frustrating the government’s best-laid plans.
Haleh Esfandiari is director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the author of “Reconstructed Lives: Women and Iran’s Islamic Revolution” and My Prison, My Home: One Woman’s Story of Captivity in Iran.”

Case of alleged adulteress reflects Iran’s internal divisions

Haleh Esfandiari

  • What is Iran trying to do or prove in the case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, an Iranian woman sentenced to be stoned to death for alleged adultery and later sentenced to hang for complicity in the murder of her husband?
The Ashtiani affair shows once again the internal divisions in Iran. There are those in the regime who wish this whole affair would disappear because they see it as an embarrassment for Iran, and there are those  who argue that the government should not cave in to international pressure and are looking for ways to carry out the sentence and hang her.  The regime's only concession to international critics was to change her verdict from death by stoning to death by hanging.
  • As of Nov. 16, Iranian state television had broadcast three separate confessions. Why is Iran giving this case so much attention? Are her confessions credible?
By broadcasting confessions by her, which are certainly coerced, Iran is reacting to the international publicity given to her case. The government wants to say to the world, "She has confessed; she is guilty." By now, the regime should have learned that no one, either in Iran or around the world, finds these television confessions credible. Ashtiani's  'confessions' have only fueled international protests regarding her case by women's movements and by governments and human rights organizations. Former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil offered in October to take Ms. Ashtiani. He was trying to help the Iranian government to find a face-saving solution out of the quagmire it has created for itself, but the regime rejected his offer.
  • The government has also arrested her son and two Germans who went to interview him. A court said on Nov. 16 that the Germans had been charged with espionage. Why has this case escalated into an international incident?
The son, Sajjad, was arrested because he had been been talking to the press and was arguing that his mother is innocent. The last straw for the government came when the son met with the two Germans  who had gone to interview him. After the meeting the Germans were arrested. They were accused of being journalists, posing as tourists and entering the country under false pretenses. As in several previous cases of detained foreigners and Iranians, the Germans were accused of endangering national security and  spying.  The same accusations have been made against the two American hikers who have been in an  Iranian prison for over a year; a third hiker was released due to illness recently, but she remains accused as well. 
  • On Nov. 2, the White House issued a statement strongly condemning Iran's plans to execute Ashtiani and its treatment of her lawyers and family. Does U.S. or international pressure have any influence on Iran in a case like this?
International pressure makes a big difference and often strengthens the hand of the more pragmatic elements in the regime. In the case of Ms. Ashtiani, as in any other cases involving the violation of human, political and religious rights, condemnation by officials and civil society organizations around the world, helps.
  • Does this case reflect any broader trends in Iran?
Yes, it reflects the hardening of attitudes in the regime.  Since the 2009 presidential elections, many of the the leaders and activists of the reform movement and the Green Movement have been arrested; several have been sentenced to prison terms. The government has also arrested the lawyers who represent the detainees in political and human rights cases. For example Sakineh Ashtiani's lawyer,  Mohammad Mostafaei fled Iran after he was threatened by the authorities.  Her other lawyer, Houtan Kian, was arrested in October. Along with Ms. Ashtiaini and her son, he was forced to appear on one of those television 'confession' spectacles. 

Read Haleh Esfandiari's chapter on Iran's women's movement in “The Iran Primer” 

Haleh Esfandiari is director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the author of “Reconstructed Lives: Women and Iran’s Islamic Revolution” and My Prison, My Home: One Woman’s Story of Captivity in Iran.”


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