Will Rouhani really moderate Iranian policies? (& Will sexual liberation bring down Iran’s regime?)

June 16, 2013

Rouhani votes last Friday


* Netanyahu on Iran’s elections: “Let’s not delude ourselves. Only last year Rouhani called Israel ‘the great Zionist Satan’; the West must keep up pressure on Tehran’s nuclear program”

* The new global military rankings shows the Iranian military has made enormous strides and is now just three places behind Israel

* New Pew poll shows large majority of Arabs, Turks now strongly distrust Iranian regime


* Iran’s current sexual revolution is unprecedented. Social attitudes have changed so much in the last few decades that many members of the Iranian Diaspora are shocked when they visit the country: “These days Tehran makes London look like a conservative city”

* Over the last two decades, Iran has experienced the fastest drop in fertility ever recorded in human history. And Iran’s annual population growth rate has plunged to 1.2 percent in 2012 from 3.9 percent in 1986

* At the same time, the average marriage age for men has gone up from 20 to 28 years old in the last three decades, and Iranian women are now marrying at between 24 and 30 -- five years later than a decade ago

* Afshin Shahi: Paradoxically, it is the puritanical state -- rigid, out of touch, and dedicated to combating “vice” and promoting “virtue” -- that seems to be powering Iran’s emergent liberal streak


This dispatch concerns Iran. You can comment on this dispatch here: www.facebook.com/TomGrossMedia. Please also press “Like” on that page.


There is a follow-up dispatch on Rouhani here:
New Iranian president’s son killed himself “over father’s extremism”



1. Will Hassan Rouhani really moderate Iranian policies?
2. Mixed reactions to the new president from Israel
3. New index ranking world’s top armies, places Israel just three ahead of Iran
4. Pew study: Large majority of Iranians favor Sharia law
5. New poll: Populations throughout Arab world, West, mistrust Iran
6. American leaders denounce latest anti-Semitic post by Iran’s supreme leader
7. “Erotic Republic” (By Afshin Shahi, Foreign Policy magazine, May 29, 2013)

[Notes below by Tom Gross]


There have been mixed reactions to the victory in the Iranian elections of Hassan Rouhani, the most moderate of the six hardline candidates permitted to stand. (His name is also being spelled Rohani and Rowhani in various Western newspapers.)

72 per cent of Iran’s 52 million eligible voters turned out to vote, with a surprisingly high 50.7% selecting Rouhani. Many newspaper headlines today in the West, including those of The Washington Post and The New York Times, are declaring him to be a “moderate”.

Rouhani, 64, who is associated with the so-called “conservative pragmatist” camp of former Iranian President Rafsanjani, will assume the presidency on August 3.

Many observers both inside and outside Iran regard the mild-talking Rouhani as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” and say he may prove more worrisome than his openly extremist opponents like Saeed Jalili would have been. He is unlikely to curtail Iran’s round-the-clock drive to build a nuclear arsenal, or stop arming the Assad regime and Hizbullah. He may be able to release a few of Iran’s thousands of political prisoners, but not free the most important dissidents.

Rouhani became the favored candidate of Iran’s reformists in this election after the Supreme Leader reduced an initial list of 680 presidential candidates to just six approved hardliners.

A European diplomat told the Agence France Presse news agency on the eve of the election that there are “no shades of grey among the remaining candidates, but only of black”.

U.S. Secretary of State Kerry said that this was “hardly an election by standards which most people in most countries judge free, fair, open, accessible, accountable elections”.

The good news, however, is that as of August 3, the current president, the anti-Semitic, Holocaust-denying, Twelfth-Imam believing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, should be out of the picture.


A reader writes:

Just watching headlines in the major U.S. dailies, first I learned that only conservatives had been allowed to run in Iran’s presidential election. Then I learned that a moderate was ahead. Finally, I've learned that a reformist has won.

Things change so fast!



Israel’s foreign ministry today released a statement that “Iran will continue to be judged by its actions.”

Israeli President Shimon Peres welcomed the election of Hasan Rouhani, saying he hoped he could bring about a change in Iran’s nuclear policy.

But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned today against being taken in by Iran’s election of the relatively moderate Rouhani.

“Let us not delude ourselves,” Netanyahu said. “The international community must not become caught up in wishes and be tempted to relax the pressure on Iran to stop its nuclear program. It must be remembered that the Iranian ruler, at the outset, disqualified candidates who did not fit his extremist outlook and from among those whose candidacies he allowed was elected the candidate who was seen as less identified with the regime, who still defines the State of Israel in an address last year as ‘the great Zionist Satan.’”

Israel’s center-left Justice Minister, Tzipi Livni, said the surprise election results would test the resolve of the West in its bid to deny Iran nuclear weapons.



Israel’s military may have an internationally outstanding reputation, but a new power index fails to give it a top 10 ranking.

The new global rankings published by GlobalFirepower.com, which list the top 68 militaries in the world, shows the Iranian military has made enormous strides and now ranks just three places behind Israel.

The list takes into account over 40 factors to determine an army’s strength. Israel is placed in this year’s list at number 13 while Iran has rapidly climbed the list to number 16. Turkey, a country that has expressed open hostility to Israel in recent years ranks 11th on the list, ahead of Israel, while the Muslim Brotherhood-led Egypt is in 12th spot, one place ahead of Israel.

Some analysts believe Israel’s true ranking should be higher since it has not made public its rumored first and (submarine-bound) second strike nuclear capabilities, nor various other strategic assets it has kept secret.

The United States ranks highest on the list followed by Russia in second place, China in third, India fourth and the United Kingdom in fifth place.



A new survey of Iranians published last Tuesday by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, three days before the elections, found that a large majority of Iranians favor implementing Sharia (Muslim religious) law in Iran – 83 percent are for it as opposed to just 15 % who are against it.

37 % of Iranians said that they believe the Iranian government already adheres to Sharia law “very closely,” while another 45 % say it follows Sharia law “somewhat closely.” Among the 13 % who believe Sharia law is largely not being implemented in Iran, a large majority, 78 %, believe it should be.

Pew carried out its study from February 24 to May 3, involving 1,522 face-to-face interviews with a nation-wide sample of Iranians.

Younger Iranians were less likely to favor a strong influence by religious leaders in politics. Among Iranians aged 18-34, just 35 % are in favor, compared to 46 % for those over 34.



A separate Pew poll released last week, conducted during the same period among 37,653 respondents in 39 countries, found that majorities in most countries have an unfavorable view of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Among Americans, 69% have an unfavorable opinion of the Iranian regime, compared to just 16% favorable. Among Germans, the figure is an even more stark 85-7 %. Among the French, it’s 88-11 %. And in Britain, the figures are 59-17 %.

In the Middle East, unfavorable views of Iran have intensified since the last such survey conducted before the so-called Arab Spring – probably because of Iran’s backing for Hizbullah and for the Assad regime in Syria. For example, in Turkey, 68% dislike Iran, an increase of 12 points since the last such poll.

Iran is disliked by a huge majority of Jordanians (81-18 %) and Egyptians (78-20 %), and among a clear majority of Palestinians (55-37 %).

Among Sunnis in Lebanon, 93% said they had unfavorable view of Iran compared to just 6% favorable.

The results can be seen here.



American Jewish and non-Jewish leaders have denounced a Facebook posting that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, made on the eve of Friday’s presidential elections, in which the Iranian leader’s Facebook profile featured a vicious anti-Semitic caricature of a Jew accompanied by allegations that Jews secretly control America and the world.


Below, I attach an article by Afshin Shahi, a lecturer in Middle East politics at Britain’s Exeter University, in which he says that Iran is in the throes of an unprecedented sexual revolution, and asks whether it could eventually bring down the regime.

-- Tom Gross


Erotic Republic
By Afshin Shahi
Foreign Policy magazine
May 29, 2013

When someone mentions Iran, what images leap into your mind? Ayatollahs, religious fanaticism, veiled women? How about sexual revolution? That’s right. Over the last 30 years, as the mainstream Western media has been preoccupied with the radical policies of the Islamic Republic, the country has undergone a fundamental social and cultural transformation.

While not necessarily positive or negative, Iran’s sexual revolution is certainly unprecedented. Social attitudes have changed so much in the last few decades that many members of the Iranian diaspora are shellshocked when they visit the country: “These days Tehran makes London look like a conservative city,” a British-Iranian acquaintance recently told me upon returning from Tehran. When it comes to sexual mores, Iran is indeed moving in the direction of Britain and the United States -- and fast.

Good data on Iranian sexual habits are, not surprisingly, tough to come by. But a considerable amount can be gleaned from the official statistics compiled by the Islamic Republic. Declining birth rates, for example, signal a wider acceptance of contraceptives and other forms of family planning -- as well as a deterioration of the traditional role of the family. Over the last two decades, the country has experienced the fastest drop in fertility ever recorded in human history. Iran’s annual population growth rate, meanwhile, has plunged to 1.2 percent in 2012 from 3.9 percent in 1986 -- this despite the fact that more than half of Iranians are under age 35.

At the same time, the average marriage age for men has gone up from 20 to 28 years old in the last three decades, and Iranian women are now marrying at between 24 and 30 -- five years later than a decade ago. Some 40 percent of adults who are of marriageable age are currently single, according to official statistics. The rate of divorce, meanwhile, has also skyrocketed, tripling from 50,000 registered divorces in the year 2000 to 150,000 in 2010. Currently, there is one divorce for every seven marriages nationwide, but in larger cities the rate gets significantly higher. In Tehran, for example, the ratio is one divorce to every 3.76 marriages -- almost comparable to Britain, where 42 percent of marriages end in divorce. And there is no indication that the trend is slowing down. Over the last six months the divorce rate has increased, while the marriage rate has significantly dropped.

Changing attitudes toward marriage and divorce have coincided with a dramatic shift in the way Iranians approach relationships and sex. According to one study cited by a high-ranking Ministry of Youth official in December 2008, a majority of male respondents admitted having had at least one relationship with someone of the opposite sex before marriage. About 13 percent of those “illicit” relationships, moreover, resulted in unwanted pregnancy and abortion -- numbers that, while modest, would have been unthinkable a generation ago. It is little wonder, then, that the Ministry of Youth’s research center has warned that “unhealthy relationships and moral degeneration are the leading causes of divorces among the young Iranian couples.”

Meanwhile, the underground sex industry has taken off in the last two decades. In the early 1990s, prostitution existed in most cities and towns -- particularly in Tehran -- but sex workers were virtually invisible, forced to operate deep underground. Now prostitution is only a wink and a nod away in many towns and cities across the country. Often, sex workers loiter on certain streets, waiting for random clients to pick them up. Ten years ago, Entekhab newspaper claimed that there were close to 85,000 sex workers in Tehran alone.

Again, there are no good countrywide statics on the number of prostitutes -- the head of Iran’s state-run Social Welfare Organization recently told the BBC: “Certain statistics have no positive function in society; instead, they have a negative psychological impact. It is better not to talk about them” -- but available figures suggest that 10 to 12 percent of Iranian prostitutes are married. This is especially surprising given the severe Islamic punishments meted out for sex outside marriage, particularly for women. More surprisingly still, not all sex workers in Iran are female. A new report confirms that middle-aged wealthy women, as well as young and educated women in search of short-term sexual relationships, are seeking the personal services of male sex workers.

Of course, it would be a mistake to assume that traditional values have completely vanished. Iran’s patriarchal culture is still strong, and orthodox values are still maintained by traditional social classes, particularly in provincial towns and villages. But at the same time, it would also be a mistake to assume that sexual liberalization has only gained momentum among the urban middle classes.

So what is driving Iran’s sexual revolution? There are a number of potential explanations, including economic factors, urbanization, new communication tools, and the emergence of a highly educated female population -- all of which are probably partly responsible for changing attitudes toward sex. At the same time, however, most of these factors are at play in other countries in the region that are not experiencing analogous transitions. (Indeed, a wave of social conservatism is sweeping much of the Middle East, while Iran moves in the opposite direction.) So what is different in Iran? Paradoxically, it is the puritanical state -- rigid, out of touch, and dedicated to combating “vice” and promoting “virtue” -- that seems to be powering Iran’s emergent liberal streak.

Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that swept Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini into power, the Iranian regime has promoted the idea of collective morality, imposing strict codes of conduct and all but erasing the boundary between private and public spheres. Maintaining the Islamic character of the country has been one of the regime’s main sources of legitimacy, and as such, there is virtually no facet of private life that is not regulated by its interpretation of Islamic law. (Indeed, clerics regularly issue fatwas on the acceptability of intimate -- and sometimes extraordinarily unlikely -- sexual scenarios.) But 34 years on, Khomeini’s successor has failed to create a utopian society -- a fact that lays bare the moral and ideological bankruptcy of a regime that is already struggling with economic and political crises.

This inconvenient truth is not lost on young people in Iran, where changing sexual habits have become a form of passive resistance. In defying the strictures of the state, Iranians are (consciously or subconsciously) calling its legitimacy into question. Meanwhile, the regime’s feeble attempts to counter the seismic shifts currently under way -- such as its repeated warnings about the danger posed by “illicit relationships” -- only further alienate those it wishes to control. Slowly but surely, Iran’s sexual revolution is exhausting the ideological zeal of a state that is wedded to the farcical notion of a utopian society and based on brittle, fundamentalist principles.

In New York, Sex and the City may be empty and banal, but in Iran, its social and political implications run deep.

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.