Containing Iran

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Since his election in 2013, Western audiences have been eager to pin their hopes on Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, viewing him as a moderate who will reform his country in line with international norms. Rouhani’s recent statements criticizing the Iranian security services for detentions of journalists and U.S. citizens serve as further proof to these optimistic observers that Iran will soon turn the corner. Re-engaged with the international community following implementation of the nuclear agreement, liberal forces in Iran will emerge, personal freedoms will flourish, and Tehran will become a responsible actor in the region.

In spite of breathless Western commentary, however, these reported rifts between reformists and hardliners present a false dichotomy. There is no real evidence to suggest that liberal forces are emerging domestically or, more importantly, in Iran’s foreign policy circles. Although popular domestically and abroad, Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, hold little authority and cannot reign in the security services or make meaningful reforms; those powers lie squarely with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

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