Sunday,22 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1281, (4 - 10 February 2016)
Sunday,22 July, 2018
Issue 1281, (4 - 10 February 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Baby steps for Iran

Iran is taking baby steps, not giant leaps, to enter a world it has been disconnected from since the Islamic Revolution, writes Camelia Entekhabifard in Paris

Al-Ahram Weekly

Last week’s trips by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to Italy and France and the restoration of economic ties after the implementation of the Iranian nuclear deal were very significant.

Among the deals signed during the trip, Airbus is to sell 118 planes to Iran, the French oil company Total is to sign a deal to pump 150,000 to 200,000 barrels of oil a day, and French President François Hollande mentioned other deals during a press conference with Rouhani in Paris.

At the joint press conference on 28 January, Hollande said the two men had talked about trade and the crises in the Middle East, including the absence of a president in Lebanon.

“Iran has influence in Lebanon, and we are seeking its help to solve this crisis. We have asked Iran to use its influence in Syria, and we also talked about other matters,” Hollande said.

Rouhani said that Syria is important for Iran and that it is a matter of concern for Iran that there is no president in Lebanon. “I believe the nuclear deal can be a model for solving other issues,” he said.

However, it was clear to all that agreements on regional matters could not be achieved without the approval of Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The nuclear deal could not have been achieved without his approval, and neither can agreements on Lebanon or Syria.

But it seems that Rouhani is able to deal with the supreme leader in a way that none of his predecessors have managed. He convinced him of the benefits of direct talks with the US on the country’s nuclear programme, and now all eyes are on Rouhani to see if he can use his skills on regional matters too.

The recent tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia have meant that these two major regional players have seen major gaps arise between them, and it will be hard to narrow these even with the rest of the world pressuring them to do so.

Two major elections are coming up in Iran on 26 February and, given the importance of these to the supreme leader and his supporters, it is hard to say whether the Syria talks or the elections will have the greater priority for Khamenei.

It will also be difficult for Rouhani and his diplomatic team to work on anything other than the economy in the near future. According to experts, it may take years before Iran’s economy recovers from the years of sanctions. Restoring the economy, particularly the oil and gas industries, will not be an easy task, and though European companies like Total and Shell have shown interest in investing in Iran they are not the biggest in the market.

Iran still lacks relations with the US, and though the EU can provide Iran with new technology this is still second-best. During his visit to the Institut Français des Relations Internationales (IFRI) in Paris last week, Rouhani raised the country’s difficulties in restoring relations with the US.

“Iran and the US is a difficult problem. A few decades of problems cannot be solved in a few weeks. We are in the stage of reducing the tensions, and in the long term we can work on other matters,” Rouhani said.

What he said will serve to guide Iran in the near future, until the country’s economy has recovered and the regime has restored its position in the international community. Reducing tensions further will be a priority of Rouhani’s government if elected for a second term.

Despite the economic agreements signed in Italy and France, the public in Iran is still suspicious about whether or not ordinary Iranians will benefit. Some people believe that the agreements will benefit entrenched economic interests and corrupt officials.

It may take years before the economy sees improvements, and in the meantime the government will need to gain public trust and keep economic policy equitable and transparent. If Iranians are to manage their expectations and not give way to complacency about the promised economic benefits, the world also needs to manage its expectations and not be too excited about quick changes in Iran.

It should not expect too much of Iran’s role in reducing tensions in the region, since the Iranian government cannot act without the approval of Khamenei. Iran is taking baby steps to enter a world that it has been disconnected from since the Islamic Revolution, and expecting a giant leap at this stage would be unrealistic.

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