Michel de Salaberry on Rouhani, Iran, and the Middle East

An interview with Canada's former ambassador to Iran, Egypt, and Jordan, about Iran’s current leadership and the broader role of religion in Middle Eastern politics.
By: /
March 5, 2014
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Michel de Salaberry is the former Canadian Ambassador to Iran, Egypt, and Jordan. He has also held diplomatic posts in Israel and Nigeria. In January, de Salaberry was invited by the Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History, in partnership with the Canadian Arab Institute and the Canadian International Council, to speak on the political situation in Iran and its implications for the broader Middle East as part of the event series “Perspectives on a Changing Middle East”.

Bill Graham Centre Junior Fellow, Meredith Kravitz, sat down with former Ambassador de Salaberry to discuss Iran’s current leadership and the broader role of religion in Middle Eastern politics.

In your post as ambassador to Iran, you had some dealings with the country’s current president, Hassan Rouhani.

Today’s event is a fortunate occurrence because it is hosted by the Bill Graham Centre. It was actually during Bill Graham’s visit to Iran in 1998 or so that I got to meet Rouhani, who was then chair of the Iranian parliament’s foreign affairs committee. Bill Graham was chair of the House of Common’s foreign affairs committee, and Rouhani was Graham’s official host.

What was your impression of him?

The person we met was very close to the image of an Iranian mullah – big, slightly ponderous, more attentive to what he was saying than listening to his guests or visitors, but an entirely pleasant person. Still, he struck us as very much a regime person. This was during the Khatami presidency when the reformists were in power, and many other Iranians active in politics were much more forward, much more adventurous. Rouhani, on the other hand, was a rather stolid political figure, a man of the revolution, a man who has been a moderate all his life and who continues to be.

Did his election came as a surprise to you?

I don’t pretend to be on top of the latest developments in Iran, but what strikes as completely unexpected is that he was allowed to win, as a moderate, during a time when Iranian politics are dominated by the conservatives.

I don’t think that in present-day Iran anyone can be elected without the consent of the supreme leadership. So the question arises, how come he was allowed to win? And various speculations have come about, one of them, probably accurately, is that the leadership recognized that sanctions were biting hard. The economy had collapsed to such an extent that they needed accommodation. In a way they needed to sue for peace.

So you think the current government is more swayed by realpolitik than ideology?

Well, in the end, all politics is realpolitik. But certainly. Speculation is more about the role and position of, for example, the security services, which occupy a huge proportion of the Iranian economy and are at the forefront of Iran’s aggressive policies in Syria and Lebanon. The question is, were they part of the decision taken, to explore terms of a settlement or a more positive relationship with the rest of the world? Or perhaps, was the allowance of Rouhani’s victory more an attempt by the central leadership, the Supreme Leader and the leadership, to prevent the security services from completely overtaking the state and reaching out for a broader base of support for the republic to continue?

Do you think the recent negotiations and interim nuclear deal are also a way for the Iranian regime to respond to the Arab Spring?

At this moment, I don’t think they are responding to any urge for an “Iranian Spring” because so far the Arab Spring has been pretty much a failure. It is important to remember, though, that in a sense, the Arab Spring began in Tehran. The first massive popular uprising, with millions of people in the street, was to protest against the proclamation of Ahmadinejad’s reelection as president in 2009. That was two years before Tunisia and Egypt.

I think it is a fact that the Green Movement in 2009 in Iran was an expression of substantial alienation on the part of the public vis-à-vis the state. And with the subsequent complete collapse of the Iranian economy and necessary but very harsh reforms, such as the restructuring of the whole social security system – which in Iran was effected through generalized subsidies for basic food stubs,– to target only the very poor, that has not brought the authorities and the people any closer.

So the immediate environment for protest was still there, but the connection with the Arab Spring, no.

You say that the Arab Spring has been a failure. What would success look like, in the short to medium term?

Well, if the medium term can extend 10 to 15 years, I think the taste of freedom, which was experienced during the various phases of the Arab Spring in different countries, is going to have a lasting impact. A return to an unintelligent, unthinking controlled state like Egypt under Mubarak is not possible.

How important is the role of religion politically in the broader Middle East? Particularly the Shia-Sunni divide?

I think we must be careful not to overplay the simplistic view of the region as being in the thralls of Sunni-Shia conflict. Religion is one flag people wave at a particular time. There is a tendency to think that because it is coming out now, that this is the underlying basic identity of people. I think the region is made of communities and individuals who promote their interests according to whatever has currency at the time. You can promote your interests through class, through language, through ethnicity, through nationalism and through religion. And people shift their flag according to circumstances. At the moment, religion is on the way up. But communities within a religion can remain very different among themselves.

Just take Iran, where strands of Shiism are multiple and diverse. You have the regime’s Shiism developed by Imam Khomeini, which believes that states should be ruled by jurisprudence, by the clerics. That is fundamentally different from traditional Shiism, where a clergy was first developed precisely because the community was separate from the state. In Sunni Islam there is no clergy, because the state assumes the religious function. In Shia Islam, the clergy was developed because you were underclass that needed to organize yourself despite or against the state.

Now we see that form of traditional Shia Islam has reemerged in Iraq, which is not officially Shia but majority Shia, and where the clergy or the leadership of Grand Ayatollah Sistani’s has tremendous influence over everything that happens, but has not assumed any formal state functions.

Do you think that a resurgence of traditional Shiism could lead to the end of the Iranian theocratic regime?

That’s exactly it. The people in power in Tehran have got to be concerned by the reemergence of the traditional model of Shiism next door, in the very heartland of Shia Islam, in Iraq. The great Imams, all that happened in present-day Iraq. Iraq is the place where the pious Iranians want to go to pilgrimage, the way other non-Muslims want to go to Jerusalem. It’s a fascinating dimension of the present situation.

What about Egypt and Morsi’s ousting? Was that a reaction to religion’s incursion into the state by the Muslim Brotherhood? Or was it because the elected government was contravening the constitution or attempting to do so?

It was all of that. There were huge grounds for dissatisfaction. It was both a revolution and a coup.

I have looked at Egyptian electoral behaviour quite closely since the revolution. One constant is that the Brotherhood always rallies about 20 percent of vote. It is a minority, but it is a solid minority. It is more than any other political movement in Egypt. I don’t think you can brush that under the carpet. And I don’t know how much time it will take, but the repressive strategies of the present government, of the military government, are ultimately going to fail. The Egyptians are voting on a constitution today – and in many ways, it is an improvement on previous constitutions – but it is not a constitution that is going to last very long.

Do you see Syria as a potential spoiler?

I see very little hope for Syria. We are up to 130,000 dead, with 500-600,000 refugees outside the country, and many more hundreds of thousands displaced inside the country, and no positive outcome foreseen at least in the immediate future.

How long can Assad last?

Well, with Russian and Iranian support, I’m sure he can last – he has a fair chance of winning.

Recently there was an article in the Financial Times entitled ‘The West Defeated in Syria.’ And I said, “Bah, another article to say that Russia and Iran have defeated the West.” And then I read more closely, and what the author was saying was not that Russia and Iran had defeated the West, but that that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states had deprived the opposition of victory by militarily and financially backing the jihadist wing of the revolutionaries.

Do you anticipate spillover into Lebanon? Lebanon has seemed quite stable recently.

Incredibly stable. It is surprising the extent to which it’s held together. Part of that, without being too Machiavellian, might be the realization on the part of the more extreme jihadists, Iran, and Hezbollah that if a civil war engulfed Lebanon, the outcry throughout the world would be such that there might be an irresistible call for the West to intervene. Just look at the Lebanese community in Canada – it is the largest and most solidly established of Arab communities. It’s the same in France, in the U.S.

What about Israel and Palestine, and the prospects for peace? Are you more or less hopeful, given recent developments in the region?

I’m hopeful on a 50-year horizon. I admire Secretary Kerry for his determination. I hope he sees something I don’t see. I hope he can actually succeed.

My first reaction after the Arab Spring, when it looked as if it might be successful in Tunisia and Egypt, was that the Arab world was opening up to a more liberal view of world affairs and that this would be a Middle East where Israel would feel more comfortable. I still think that but not on a 10- or 15-year horizon.

But what we have seen is how, with the Internet, with the speed with which things are happening, outlooks can change very fast. But the in short term, all this instability has the effect of strengthening the resolve of Israel to resist change.

Any final thoughts regarding Iran and the broader Middle East?

Three or four years ago, there was hope through the Arab Spring. But in the last year and a half, there seemed to be nothing good emerging from the Middle East. Now, incredibly, there seems to be a source of hope in development in Iran.

I hope the forces of resistance on either side don’t win out. It’s going to be tough. Verification is essential and we’re not there yet. But something has started.

The “Perspectives on a Changing Middle East” series continues on March 6th, 2014 with its second lecture "A Problem of Politics and History, Not Religion: Understanding Sectarianism in the Modern Arab World" by Professor Ussama Makdisi of Rice University.