[VIDEO] Yes They Can! Hassan Rouhani Music Video: Iran’s answer to Obama Personality-Cult PresidencyPosted: December 1, 2013
An MTV-style video shows Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, riding high after 100 days in office
Colin Freeman, and Naeim Karimi report: With its gentle acoustic guitar and message of tolerance and world peace, the MTV-style video has the feel of a celebrity charity song. But as a succession of young men and women sing in front of the microphones, the presence of a sombre, white-turbaned cleric shows that this is no routine pop production.
Still triumphant from his recent nuclear deal with the West, Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, got a new starring role last week – this time in a music video marking his 100th day in office. Given that musical instruments are banned on state television, its depiction of a male guitarist an d female drummer would itself be enough to annoy the Islamic Republic’s hardliners. But the lyrics, too, could not be further from the “Death to America” rhetoric associated with Iran during the last 30 years.
“Let our hearts be cleaned of resentment, let conciliation and friendship substitute animosity,” the song goes. “The road ahead is long and I am a new traveller.” Shot by the team that did Mr Rouhani’s summer election campaign, the video, entitled “New Traveler”, attracted nearly half a millions viewers in its first day online, many of them noting its clear similarities to Barack Obama’s 2008 “Yes We Can” film.
And much though Iran’s hardliners may resent it, right now the comparison seems justified.
For 100 days in, Mr Rouhani is riding high on the same kind of popularity that Mr Obama enjoyed at the start of his first term, with reform-minded Iranians finally hopeful that the country is heading for better times.
Rather like his ultra-conservative predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the silver-bearded 64-year-old was something of an unknown quantity when he swept to power in a surprise victory in June.
Iran’s all-powerful Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, rigged the contest to allow only candidates loyal to him to stand, so few had real confidence in Mr Rouhani’s reformist pledges. And even if they turned out to be genuine, the expectation was that any good intentions would flounder in the face of opposition from hardliners.
However, the historic accord on Iran’s nuclear program, which saw the first direct contact between Iranian and US presidents in more than 30 years, has shown the mild-mannered cleric to be a shrewd political operator. Not only will deal ease the sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy, it has given him huge political kudos that may now allow him to push through reforms.
Nowhere is the sense of optimism clearer than in the fashionable cafes of northern Tehran, home to the middle class reformists who had begun to despair of anything ever changing since the violent suppression of 2009’s anti-regime protests. For most of the past four years, many gave up even talking politics – partly for fear of arrest, and partly because the subject was simply too depressing.
Today, though, the cafes are once again abuzz, this time with talk of how Mr Rouhani is gradually rolling back the strictures of the Ahmadinejad years.
In September, the hated morality police were barred from arresting women deemed to be immodestly dressed, while the House of Cinema, an arthouse theatre behind several internationally acclaimed films, was allowed to reopen. Then, last month, the culture ministry announced a review of 2006 book censorship rules, which banned both Iranian literary classics and international best sellers like the Da Vinci Code.
“I see hope, I see motivation and I see expectations rising, which is good,” said Saba Hossein*, a 25-year-old engineer who actively campaigned in Mr Rouhani’s election. “People are demanding more and want a better life.”
Perhaps the clearest sign of Mr Rouhani’s success, though, is the gloom in the hardline camp, which opposed to any nuclear deal at all. While the agreement is known to have had the tacit blessing of the Supreme Leader, they believe his hand was forced by voters willing to sacrifice national pride for economic comfort.
“We pious individuals feel a lump in our throat from the nuclear agreement,” said Ali Ahmed, a member of Basiji, or religious militia, who is proud of how he beat up protesters during the 2009 uprising.
“We are not the type to go against the wishes of the Leader, who has asked to be patient and not voice our dissatisfaction. But it pains us to see that people are willing to forego all our nuclear achievements just because the economy is in a dire state. Unfortunately, the new generation is so accustomed to luxury and comfort that they cannot resist like the generation of youth who fought the war against Saddam Hussein.”
At just 23, Mr Ahmed was not even alive during Iran’s 1980-88 war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which cost half a million Iranian lives and remains the defining struggle of the Islamic Republic.
But the fact that he mentions it shows the difficulty Mr Rouhani may have in keeping the conservatives on board: to the hardliners, any rapprochement with the West is seen as a betrayal amounting to treason.
Nonetheless, last week Mr Rouhani felt confident to take the airwaves to trash Mr Ahmadinejad, telling state television how inflation soared to 40 per cent under his predecessor, while the economy had shrunk by six per cent per annum.
“These facts show the conditions we inherited from the previous government, and in what conditions we must grapple with the problems,” he said.
True, given Mr Ahmadinejad’s notorious economic illiteracy, which saw him replace finance ministry technocrats with religious ideologues, it has not been hard for Mr Rowhani to improve upon his record. Simple confidence-building meaures like putting the technocrats back in their jobs has helped boost Tehran’s stock market by 25 per cent since he took office.
As such, his criticisms of Mr Ahmadinejad drew outrage from Iran’s conservative press. It also slyly pointed out that his predecessor’s record in building up Iran’s stock of uranium-enriching centrifuges had given Mr Rouhani plenty to bargain with at last month’s nuclear talks.
“(Iran) had 19,000 centrifuges while talking to the six world powers,” said Mohammad Kazem Anbar-Loui, editor-in-chief of Resalat, an ultra-conservative newspaper . “People know that the capability has not taken place in the recent 100 days – it is the product of eight years of effort by the previous government.”
But like Mr Obama, the real challenge for Mr Rowhani now may be in managing expectations. His modest progress on the economic and cultural files have not yet been matched on the rather thornier issue of human rights, where he is under pressure to make much more radical improvements.
While one of his first acts in office was to release 80 people jailed in the aftermath of 2009’s protests, nearly ten times that many are still thought to be in custody. Among them are Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi, the two main opposition leaders who have languished under house arrest ever since the disputed 2009 elections. So far there is not even talk of them being released.
Mr Rouhani also attracted ridicule recently by declaring that writers in Iran were free to practice their craft – prompting a number of journalists to step forward with court orders banning them from doing precisely that.
For the “New Traveller”, there is still clearly a long way to go.
* Names of interviewees have been changed
Additional reporting by Robert Tait in Jerusalem
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