Post Election Changes in Iran
Despite President Rouhani having been in office for no longer than two months, a change in atmosphere amongst the Iranian people and government can already be felt.
The first change of behavior which can be seen from the new government is various cabinet members' registration and membership in social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter, which enables these government officials to have direct contact with people all over the world. Several Ministers and the President himself seem to be involved in this new attitude towards social media. The Iranian Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, is one of the most active ministers in this field. Mr. Zarif was the first Minister to join Facebook and officially announced to the public's surprise, that in fact the page he has made in this social network website is administered by both himself and also his children who update the page. The Foreign Minister's page on Facebook has more than 280,000 likes to date and many follow his reports which he writes to people from around the world, describing his work schedule and meetings with foreign dignitaries. This is the first time in the Islamic Republic that a Minister has been directly and so closely in touch with the people. Some other members of the cabinet joined Facebook after Mr. Zarif as well.
The President himself does not have a Facebook account but he has been active on Twitter and has reportedly been tweeting personally. Mr. Rouhani has also been reported to tweet a congratulatory message to the Jewish community for the Jewish New Year which caught international observers by surprise. Mr. Zarif, who has his own Twitter account has also reportedly tweeted the same message and wished all Jews, and especially Iranian Jews, a happy new year. This move was seen as a change of attitude in comparison to the discourse of Iran's previous President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The President has also sent his congratulations on Twitter to Shirin Gerami, the first female triathlete to compete for Iran, which he mentioned was a great achievement and a step towards gender equality.
Since access to social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter are restricted in Iran and the people usually use proxy software to connect to these websites from within Iran, the mass opening of Facebook and Twitter accounts by Iranian cabinet members is being closely watched by analysts as it could be a sign of change in attitude towards censorship of internet sites.
In line with these recent developments, Iran also appointed its first ever female Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, Ms. Marziyeh Afkham. Ms. Afkham has been following a career in diplomacy and has been working at the Foreign Ministry for 30 years. This is considered a bold move by the ministry to appoint a woman to such a high ranking position amongst conservative hardliners.
All these developments have helped in creating a change of atmosphere in Iran and to some extent the way in which the country is perceived both domestically and internationally.
Foreign Relations and the New Iranian Government
Since the coming to office of the new Iranian government, a few noteworthy events have taken place in the realm of foreign relations. Sultan Qaboos of Oman, Iran's main ally among Persian Gulf states, was the first foreign head of state to visit the country after the inauguration of Mr. Rouhani's government. During the period of the Sultan's visit, the two countries discussed ways to improve energy and economic cooperation as well as regional issues such as Egypt and Syria. While in Tehran, the Sultan met with the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani, former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, as well as the country's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.
The two countries have enjoyed cordial relations for decades and Oman has previously acted as an intermediary between Iran and the West on a couple of occasions as Iran does not have direct diplomatic relations with the US. An example of such mediation has been Oman's assistance with the release of US and Iranian detainees in either country. Due to the close relations Oman has with Iran and the West, as well as a history of mediating between the two sides, many analysts were speculating whether the Sultan was carrying a message for the Iranian leadership from President Obama although it is not clear whether this was the case.
Generally, the new Iranian government has indicated that it seeks to improve Iran's relations with other states. Its' priorities for this goal are its fifteen neighbours and other countries in the region. The new government has also been keen to defuse tensions arising from the Syrian civil war. Mr. Javad Zarif, the Iranian Foreign Minister recently travelled to Iraq and held talks with the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maleki, as well as with the Iraqi Foreign Minister. The one day trip was due to an increase in tensions and the possibility of US strikes against Syria, and Mr. Zarif and the Iraqi government officials were to discuss its possible outcomes for the region.
The Iranian President also carried out his first foreign trip when he travelled to the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, to attend a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. While in Bishkek, Mr. Rouhani met with the Russian and Chinese Presidents, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. The heads of state discussed international security concerns such as Syria and emphasized the need for diplomatic solutions to the stand-off with regards to Iran's nuclear programme.
Another development in recent weeks has been the exchange of letters between President Rouhani and President Obama. Mr. Rouhani acknowledged he had received a letter from Mr. Obama congratulating him on his election victory and raising some issues of interest. Mr. Rouhani further stated that he responded to the letters, thanking the American President for his message and relaying Iran's position on the issues raised. Mr. Rouhani mentioned that he thought the tone of the letters he received were positive and constructive.
The highlight of the new Iranian government's international overtures came in late September when the Iranian President and Foreign Minister travelled to New York to attend the annual General Assembly at the United Nations. Mr. Rouhani addressed the General Assembly and in his speech, he restated Iran's position regarding regional and international issues such as the use of force and sanctions to achieve political goals. He also made a comment regarding Mr. Obama's speech which he had earlier delivered to the General Assembly. Mr. Rouhani stated that he listened carefully to Mr. Obama's speech, and he believes that by creating the right structure, the differences between Iran and the United States can be managed. Mr. Rouhani also met with the French President, Mr. Francois Hollande on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting.
Mr. Zarif, who had travelled to New York a few days earlier, also had a busy schedule filled with meetings and discussions with other Foreign Ministers and noteworthy individuals. Mr. Zarif met with the Foreign Ministers of France, Britain, the Netherlands, Australia, Italy, Switzerland, Japan, Turkey, Oman, Slovakia, Croatia, Georgia, Bulgaria, Portugal as well as the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Ms. Catherine Ashton. The issues of discussion included the improvement of bilateral ties, the Syrian crisis, and Iran's nuclear programme. Mr. Zarif also met with the US Secretary of State Mr. John Kerry after a meeting of the P5+1 where Foreign Ministers of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany, were present. This move can be considered as a renewed and more serious push to reach a diplomatic solution regarding the Iranian nuclear programme.
Many analysts were watching closely for a potential meeting between President Rouhani and President Obama, at the United Nations but the encounter did not occur due to so called "complications". Nevertheless, just as President Rouhani was leaving New York to head back to Tehran, the breakthrough came when the Presidents of Iran and the United States talked directly over the telephone after 34 years. President Rouhani and President Obama discussed the Iranian nuclear programme and ways to push negotiations forward, whereby both Presidents mandated their Foreign Ministers with the task of following through with resolving the Iranian nuclear issue. This was perceived in both countries as a historic phone call and an ice breaker given the decades of hostilities between the two states.