If you followed the news over the weekend, you would have come away with the impression that the Islamic Republic of Iran just elected a reform-minded moderate leader as president. “Iran: Moderate candidate wins presidential vote,” read USA Today’s headline. The New York Times reported, “Iran Moderate Wins Presidency by a Large Margin.” A Reuters analysis declared, “Iran moderate’s poll triumph is mandate for change.” And NPR blared that, “Moderate Wins Iran’s Presidency In Rebuke To Hard-Line Clerics.”
It’s striking that news organizations that routinely portray conservatives as extreme or hard-line when reporting on U.S. domestic politics are so eager to slap the “moderate” tag on Hassan Rouhani. It’s also dangerous.
To be clear, free and fair elections do not exist in Iran and the office of the presidency lacks real power. Instead, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has the ultimate say on important matters such as foreign policy and the nation’s nuclear program, and the Guardians Council, which is controlled by those appointed directly or indirectly by him, picks the presidential candidates the Iranian people can choose among. In this election, the council hand-picked eight candidates that, whatever their shades of differences, were all loyal to the regime. This is like living in a country with one clothing store that gives patrons the choice of purchasing any navy colored suit that they like. Hailing Rouhani’s victory as a triumph of moderation is sort of like saying, in a sea of navy suits, “Wow – a pinstriped navy suit! So many options!” There’s a reason why Supreme Leader Khamenei confidently announced on Twitter, “A vote for any of these candidates is a vote for the Islamic Republic and a vote of confidence in the system.”
In an interview with the Tower, a blog of the Israel Project, Soli Shahvar, head of the Ezri Center for Iran and Gulf Studies at Haifa University, explained that the regime clearly wanted Rouhani to win. This is why the roster of choices included more candidates with a hard-line public posture, thus allowing Rouhani to consolidate the votes of those who preferred somebody less bombastic in tone. But why did the regime want Rouhani?
Clearly, the powers that be decided that having a polarizing figure in the mold of outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad as the public face of the regime no longer served its purposes. That doesn’t mean that Khamenei is backing off Iran’s nuclear ambitions or abandoning his own hatred of the Great Satan of America or his stated position that Israel is a “cancerous tumor that should be cut and will be cut.” Instead, it just means that he’s decided that those aims could be better served by presenting a fresh face to the outside world who gullible (or sympathetic) Westerners would describe as a “moderate.”
In reality, Rouhani is a regime loyalist who has been on Iran’s Supreme National Security Council since 1989 and who served as the nation’s chief nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005. In a recent television interview, he boasted that Iran’s strategy during this time was to use the diplomatic process to buy time for the development of the nation’s nuclear program by exploiting a wedge between the U.S. and Europe, thus preventing the United Nations Security Council from taking action. “(America) wanted what we had in nuclear technology not to be completed, and that we surrender what we had already,” he said. “What we aimed to do was to create a space so that this technology is completed.”
For those who oppose Iran becoming a nuclear power, one silver lining of Ahmedinejad’s Holocaust denial and constant bluster toward Israel and America was that such rhetoric helped clarify the true nature of the regime. It made it much easier to argue for the isolation of Iran and to build support for measures to thwart its nuclear ambitions. Now, Rouhani’s election (and the flood of naive stories in the Western press about his moderation) will prompt calls for more engagement with Iran. Meanwhile, the regime will get exactly what it wants – the breathing room it needs to acquire nuclear capability. In this sense Rouhani is much more dangerous than Ahmedinejad.