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Opinion: Rouhani tends his garden | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Iranian-American journalist Jason Rezaian (R) and his Iranian wife Yeganeh Salehi, who works for the UAE newspaper The National, during a foreign ministry spokeswoman weekly press conference in Tehran, Iran, 10 September 2013. (EPA/STRINGER)

There is a famous proverb used by some grandmothers in Iran when they want to mock parents who give too much attention to a spoiled child: “Don’t talk; don’t make noise; don’t disturb little Ahmad. He’s been busy growing a cucumber!”

The proverb mocks one who is busy doing nothing, since cucumbers are easy to grow. I am reminded of this proverb by the atmosphere among journalists and political activists in Iran, who these days seem to be upset with President Hassan Rouhani’s silence concerning the new wave of persecution of journalists.

The Internet and the Persian TV channels operating from outside Iran are filled with complaints and reports, all addressing the president and asking why he can’t confront the hardliners. Their anger has been stoked by a new wave of arrests, which has seen four US-based Iranian journalists arrested, though some reports say one has since been released.

To me, it was very clear from the time Rouhani became president that his government’s immediate priority was not the domestic political struggle, or the matter of female dress codes, or the judiciary’s confrontation with the journalists. His priority, in my view, was to fix the paralyzed economy by resolving the nuclear issue and improving Iran’s relations with the West.

Reviewing Rouhani’s performance after a year in office, one can see some improvement. Forcing the president to take a position on the recent arrest of the journalists seems to be exactly what the hardliners are looking for, in order to launch a serious attack on him and his nuclear negotiation team.

For President Rouhani and his government, what is perhaps most important are the long-term economic benefits that a successful deal would bring about, not just for a small group of corrupt officials, but for many Iranians. Rouhani does not want to lose the support of the pro-reform intellectuals and journalists, but in comparison with what the government may gain for the whole nation, perhaps he prefers to close his eyes to all these human rights violations.

Major improvement in Iran’s economic position is what Rouhani and his team are looking for. This will not come unless country continues with the nuclear talks, and as long as Iran remains at the negotiating table and is flexible and sincere in its engagement with the P5+1 world powers.

A final nuclear deal would stimulate Iran’s economy by allowing it to reintegrate into the global oil market and access over 100 billion US dollars in foreign currency reserves, as well as by providing new impetus for building trade partnerships and engaging in scientific exchanges.

Iran has come a long way and made a lot of progress in the negotiations, and this helps explain the president’s silence towards the unprecedented pressure on journalists in Iran. Simply put, Rouhani doesn’t want the nuclear talks to be jeopardized by anything, whether internal or international.

Iranian leaders skillfully handle these challenges and are confident in their ability to make history by solving one of the biggest international crises the Islamic Republic has faced since the hostage crisis in the early days of the revolution.

Iran’s people know that they do not benefit from Iran’s prolonged political and economic isolation, and they are likely to be the most negatively impacted by the failure to reach a deal, no matter how sensitive they are to internal matters such as human rights violations. More than social freedom, it seems that a life that is affordable and peaceful is important for most Iranians, regardless of their education level or place in society.

For the first time in the Islamic Republic of Iran’s history, the government in power understands the urgent needs of its people. Those in government know they must serve the Iranian people first, leaving ideology aside. In this case, I could slightly change the old slang Persian proverb: “Yes! Don’t move! Don’t make noise! Rouhani is growing flowers!”