Democracy Lab

The Rouhani Paradox

Iran's president came to office promising liberalization and a better relationship with the West. But can he really have both?

Last month, an Iranian court sentenced eight Facebook users to prison sentences ranging from seven to 20 years on vague charges of blasphemy and insulting Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Also last month, a provincial court summoned Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg to appear in a court to defend himself against accusations that Facebook apps have violated the privacy of Iranian citizens. Meanwhile, another court banned the popular mobile phone photo-sharing service Instagram. It's all par for the course in Iran, where YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook are blocked by the regime, which fears that its opponents will use social media to stir up anti-government protests.

There's one particularly prominent exception to the ban, though: President Hassan Rouhani. The Iranian president, a regular user of Twitter and Facebook, has denounced the crackdown. "We should see the cyberworld as an opportunity," he told the official IRNA news agency. "Why are we so shaky? Why don't we trust our youth?"

As Rouhani marks the first anniversary of his election on June 14, he looks back on a decidedly mixed bag of achievements. He won his landslide victory thanks to two main promises he made to Iranian voters. He vowed to enter into nuclear talks with the West with the ultimate aim of ending the sanctions that have crippled the economy. He also pledged to loosen up the rigid social restrictions imposed by hardline conservatives, who see the slightest relaxation as a betrayal of the ideals of the Islamic regime.

Yet if Rouhani's first term is any indication, it may prove impossible for him to move head on both fronts at the same time. So far he's kept the nuclear talks on track despite determined opposition from his conservative opponents. But he's only been able to do that by proceeding cautiously with liberalization.

During his presidential campaign, Rouhani positioned himself as a moderate, harshly criticizing the policies of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, his hardline predecessor. The country came under crippling international sanctions after Ahmadinejad refused to halt Tehran's nuclear program, exacerbating an ailing economy already undermined by the mismanagement and corruption of Ahmadinejad's tenure. Rouhani correspondingly called for rapprochement with the West as well as more political and social openness at home. He vowed to seek the freedom of activists jailed following the massive 2009 uprising (the so-called "Green Revolution"), when many accused Ahmadinejad of winning his second presidential term in a fraudulent election.

Upon assuming office, Rouhani made good on his promise to launch a new round of nuclear talks with the West -- and so far he's managed to keep the negotiations going, despite concerted opposition from his conservative opponents. In November, Iran suspended some of its nuclear activities in return for limited sanction relief, effective for six months. Iranian officials are now engaged in another series of negotiations with the United States, China, Russia, Britain, France, and Germany -- the countries known as P5+1 -- that would extend sanction relief for another six months.

So far, so good. But Rouhani has far less to show when it comes to his promises of a more open society. He's signally failed to deliver on his vow to release of dozens who were jailed in 2009. The continued incarceration of two prominent leaders, Mehdi Karroubi and Mir-Hussein Moussavi, both candidates in the 2009 presidential race, remains a barometer to gauge how far Iran's hardliners are willing to loosen their control. The two men have been under house arrest since 2011, and dozens of other activists who were jailed in 2009 are still in prison. Rouhani has not been able to secure the two men's, or anyone else's, release. Several activists were released only after serving their terms out to the end. Meanwhile, the pace of executions in 2014 has remained high. According to the Iran Human Rights activist group, more than two people are being killed every day, and some 320 people have been executed in the first five months of 2014.

So why has Rouhani managed to make more headway on the nuclear issue? The crucial point here is the state of the Iranian economy. The impact of sanctions has been devastating. The percentage of families living in poverty rose from 22 percent to more than 40 percent during Ahmadinejad's eight-year term, while the rial, the Iranian currency, lost 50 percent of its value in the course of 2013 alone. Restrictions on trade mean that the government can't import western drugs and medical supplies. The price of food -- especially milk, bread, fruits, and vegetables -- has skyrocketed. In April, officials set the inflation rate at 28 percent.

Reza Khatami, a former member of parliament and the brother of ex-president Mohammad Khatami, recently said in an interview with an Iranian magazine that the government will be doing well if it can reduce the inflation rate to 25 percent by March 2015. "Rouhani inherited a complete economic wreck," he said. Last month the economy got a slight boost after the limited sanction relief measures from the nuclear talks allowed Iran's oil exports to rise from 1.1 million barrels a day to 1.39.

This economic pressure explains why Rouhani has managed to retain the support of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Khamenei is fully aware of the country's dire need to get rid of the sanctions, which have prompted a decline in Iran's oil revenue and hampered trade due to banking restrictions. Khamenei, who has the final word on all matters of state, has backed the nuclear negotiations and the agreements that the government has made with the P5+1. Khamenei has gone so far as to endorse the government's direct talks with the United States -- the country he's often labeled as Iran's enemy. He has also expressly defended Rouhani against criticism from the Revolutionary Guard, potentially one of the president's most powerful opponents, given its enormous economic and political power. Khamenei is the only man in the country who can push back against the Guards, given the fact that he appoints the organization's head. (Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi said this month that Ayatollah Khamenei had to issue "a harsh warning" to media outlets linked to the Revolutionary Guards and later meet with their directors to stop them from undermining Rouhani. That a top government official had to say this publicly suggests just how enormous the political and economic clout of the Guards has become in present-day Iran.)

Yet this support comes with a price. Khamenei isn't exactly known for flexibility on cultural and social matters, and he seems little inclined to back the president on some of his more controversial domestic initiatives. True, Rouhani's government has achieved a few small victories. His Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance has issued permits for books that were previously banned and has lifted the ban on the country's feminist Zanan magazine. Music bands and musicians are holding public concerts again.

But Rouhani knows perfectly well that losing the Supreme Leader's support will mean the end of his efforts at rapprochement with the West. And the conservative establishment -- above all the Revolutionary Guards -- knows it too, which is why they haven't hesitated to push back. In May, law enforcement arrested six young Iranians who posted a self-made music video based on the utterly apolitical hit song "Happy" by U.S. pop singer Pharrell Williams. Five of the group were released after Rouhani came to their defense (though the director of the video remained in jail for several weeks).

And even that draconian punishment looks relatively mild against the background of other recent moves by the security establishment. In what appeared to be a public show of muscle-flexing earlier this spring, prison guards launched on an all-out assault in a detention facility on a number of prisoners held since 2009. They beat the inmates for several hours, causing severe injuries, fractures, cuts and bruises that were visible to inmates' families during visits later that month. Amnesty International identified the assailants as members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and members of the Intelligence Ministry. The prisoners were handcuffed and beaten with batons and then locked in solitary confinements. No one was arrested for the attack (though the head of the prison was replaced).

In his magazine interview, Khatami noted that expectations are high in Iran, warning that if the president failed to deliver more political openness, "people will get disappointed."  "The government has not taken any steps to improve internal politics," said Khatami.

Yet other analysts argue that the president's modest liberalization still offers a welcome change from the eight years of Ahmadinejad's tenure. "Rouhani has managed to steer the country away from that dark path and has correctly targeted to resolve the nuclear crisis with the West to create some kind of economic relief inside the country," says Hamidreza Jalaipour, a professor of sociology at Tehran University and a prominent reformist. "For the first time, people feel positive about the future. "

Jim Walsh, an Iran expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says that the nuclear issue remains a number one priority for western countries negotiating with Iran. "The human rights and nuclear issues have different time frames," he said. "Human rights is a process that occurs over years if not decades, as have been seen in China, Latin America, and elsewhere. By contrast, the nuclear issue has a time horizon of months or a couple of years before it could lead to conflict in the region."

Most analysts in Iran agree that Iran is going through a sensitive time after the 2009 uprising and the crackdown that followed. The sanctions have undermined civil society, they say, meaning that democracy cannot be rushed. Resolving the nuclear dossier, said Jalaipour, was more important than addressing any other issue at this stage. "No one can talk about freedom and human rights when people are hungry," he said.  "It becomes possible to move forward with political development when people's economic conditions improve."

It's hard to say whether Rouhani agrees. But given the current balance of forces in Iran he may have little choice one way or the other.

ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Colombia Calls a Draw in the War on Drugs

After years of bloodshed, Colombia's government is teaming up with its former rebel enemies to beat the drug problem.

In Colombia, the drug war may soon be coming to an end. In early May, negotiators from the Colombian government and the rebel group Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) reached an agreement on drug trafficking as part of their effort to end the country's 50-year old conflict. Shifting away from old, controversial methods like crop fumigation, the new deal focuses on substituting crops, taking on organized crime and cartels, and treating drugs as a public health issue to treat addicts and reduce demand. It's a historic move -- and good news for President Juan Manuel Santos, who faces an increasingly popular opposition candidate in second-round elections on June 15.

Colombia has long been viewed as the world's supermarket for illegal drugs like cocaine and a hotspot for related threats of violence, kidnappings, and guerrilla war (so much so that its recent tourist marketing slogan was "the only risk is wanting to stay"). Colombia's drug industry burgeoned in the 1980s with the rise of Pablo Escobar's Medellín Cartel and the Cali Cartel. The role of guerrilla and paramilitary groups also grew through the 1980s and 1990s, and today there is a resurgence of cartels and criminal bands. The Colombian drug trade is estimated at $10 billion and presently accounts for 43 percent of global coca supply (as well as smaller amounts of marijuana and heroin poppy). It has been responsible for the corruption of public officials and some of the highest rates of violence in the world. (In the photo above, a soldier guards a large shipment of cocaine seized from a laboratory in Timbiqui.)

With this deal, the negotiation process reaches its halfway point -- and it hasn't been without controversy. FARC, the government's main ally in this new initiative, was founded under a pro-peasant, communist ideology, in the 1960s and moved into the drug trade in the early 1980s, becoming the country's main trafficking organization. Past Colombian counter-narcotic policies against the FARC and other actors -- interdiction, aerial spraying of pesticides, raids on coca labs -- have been aggressive, and have had high financial and human costs. FARC's popularity is waning, its ranks have fallen from an estimated 18,000 in 2002 to 8,000 today, and several of its top leaders have been killed. No wonder, then, that FARC seems to be looking to demobilize and get out of the drug trade.

The deal designates FARC as a key player in the crop substitution initiative. Most peasant farmers say they are not married to coca and only cultivate it for lack of alternatives. Assisting coca growers with the transition to legal crops -- using, for example, cash subsidies, technical assistance to grow alternatives, developing appropriate infrastructure, and granting credit and land titles -- will help provide income for the peasants that the FARC purports to represent. The Colombian government, USAID, and the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime have sponsored these programs in the past to some degree of success, and farmers in coca-growing regions support them. These initiatives could also keep additional farmers from entering into drug production.

Crop substitution is already a sensitive issue, given recent protests over adjustment assistance initiatives and the unstable price of coffee, Colombia's other well-known export. But the agreement hopes to leverage the fact that FARC wields influence in key crop substitution areas. Also, FARC's exit from the drug economy could at least temporarily ease crop substitution, decreasing demand and lowering prices for coca paste.

One of the most dramatic changes in the deal is its approach to drug addiction as a public health issue. Colombia is one of the most unequal countries in the world, and domestic drug consumption disproportionately affects the poor and underprivileged. Colombians have the atrocious phrase of "disposable" people (desechables) to refer to addicts, the homeless, and the extreme poor. Sad, shocking, yet not uncommon, addicts are often found unconscious on main streets in broad daylight, and people skirt around them as if they are not there. The new plan reflects a welcome, compassionate turn in caring for neglected citizens that have been affected by drugs.

Though Colombia's new plan aims to solve Colombia's drug problem, the agreement could have a broader global impact. It could help suppress the supply of drugs funneled into the rest of the Western Hemisphere and Europe. Yet even with strong implementation, there are limits to what the deal could accomplish. Demand for cocaine remains high in the United States and Europe, and is growing in South American countries, such as Argentina and Brazil. The deal will therefore do little to curb the stubborn incentives to compete for drug profits. Analysts of past peace efforts and opposition politicians also suspect that the agreement will be difficult to implement because of doubts about FARC's participation and the government's ability to follow through on its commitments.

For its part, FARC negotiators may represent the more political wing of their group, and might not be able to bring their criminally minded fronts onside. FARC splinter fronts could be a thorny reality -- as was the case when right-wing paramilitaries reneged on earlier peace agreements they had signed in the period from 2003 to 2006. For example, FARC's special operations unit, the Teófilo Forero mobile column, may seek to continue reaping trafficking-related profits in the southwestern part of the country.

Meanwhile, criminal groups in Colombia will also almost certainly continue to have a hand in the drug trade. They have filled in the gaps left by other cartels and demobilized paramilitaries. They have also targeted land-restitution and human rights activists in recent years. Fearing they will fill the vacuum created by a FARC demobilization, the government has treated these groups as military threats. Now, as Colombian Minister of Defense Juan Carlos Pinzón said recently, the government must continue to "be present immediately after armed actors are defeated." It will be critical for Colombian security forces to quickly secure former FARC regions so they are not taken over by new actors.

Another challenge is that the peace deal could merely shift the Colombian production of cocaine to other countries through a "balloon effect." Peru recently surpassed Colombia in coca production, and Peruvian outfits such as the remnants of Shining Path will likely enjoy higher prices and profits and will increase production. On the other hand, reducing Colombian drug production even temporarily could improve security in Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean. These transshipment points have suffered bouts of drug-related violence and have some of the highest homicide rates in the world. A drop in drug flows could reduce bloody competition among traffickers.

The deal also threatens to box in the United States and fracture the international anti-drug effort. Colombia is shifting away from elements of Plan Colombia, the U.S. aid program that has provided billions of dollars in counter-narcotics assistance to Colombia over the past 15 years, largely directed toward eradication programs. The United States is already under pressure from voter-approved legalizations of marijuana in Colorado and Washington, and could face even greater pressure to pursue decriminalization and policies that confront drug consumption. The question now is whether the United States will back the agreement or find itself in the awkward position of dissenting from a cornerstone for achieving peace that diverges from its historical get-tough, penalization-heavy approach to drugs.

Still, calling a truce between FARC and the government in the War on Drugs could have several positive results, especially if it serves as a model for other countries entrenched in conflict and the drug trade. The public health component, in particular, could be instructive for consumer countries considering strategies to suppress the demand for drugs. Similarly, crop substitution and the partnering role of the FARC could show a path for eradication in producer countries. Such policy shifts could have positive feedback effects for Colombia.

The global drug problem is larger than Colombia. Yet Colombians and observers around the world are hoping that this deal on drugs will have the power to truly tackle the drug trade, move the country toward peace, and promote the inclusion of marginalized populations into the formal economy and mainstream social life. The prospects for broader success hinge in part on factors beyond Colombia's control -- but could be greatly bolstered if other countries follow Colombia's lead.

GUILLERMO LEGARIA/AFP/Getty Images