Misreading Iran’s Elections: Iranian Infighting and American Narcissism

Iran’s presidential election of June 14th is being hailed as a political opening. The landslide victory of Hassan Rouhani, who had called for moderation in foreign and domestic policies, for a more open state news media, and for engagement with the West regarding Tehran’s nuclear program, is being seen as something unique in the history of Iran’s Islamic Republic. Biographical details about the new president abound, as evidence of his distinctness. But the relevance or significance of these facts, and that of his office of the president altogether, is entirely suspect given the thirty-four-year history of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Take the 1989 rise of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani to his first term as president. That election, too, spurred a great deal of enthusiasm, and for good reason. Ayatollah Khomeini had just died. The seemingly endless war with Iraq had finally ended. And Rafsanjani was promising “renewal”—an allusion to the postwar reconstruction Iran needed and also to the bonds between the motherland and the diaspora whom he was inviting to return home to help get the job done. For many exiles languishing at menial jobs in the West, Rafsanjani’s call rekindled the hope of repatriation. The call, in fact, marked a moment when the once united opposition, now lured by the possibility of homecoming, became divided.

That year, Hans-Dietrich Genscher of Germany became the first foreign minister of a European nation to travel to Iran in many years. Buoyed by the visit, he spoke of the end of religious radicalism and the dawn of a new era in Iran at a press conference upon the conclusion of the visit. In Genscher’s view, and that of many other leaders, Iran’s new leadership was ready to embrace Europe and Europe could help strengthen the forces of change by helping the new moderate-in-chief rebuild his country.

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Unraveling the Mykonos Killings

In her painstaking new book, Roya Hakakian recounts the Tehran-backed 1992 assassination of Iranian exiles in Berlin—and the legal and diplomatic complications it spawned.

German businesses cheered the idea. By 1992, trade figures between the two nations had reached five billion dollars, making Germany Iran’s dominant Western economic partner. Iran’s shares in German stocks exceeded two hundred million dollars. In those years, the two countries exchanged more than three hundred political, economic, cultural, and legal delegations, half of them parliamentary members from both sides. In every international summit, Germany rejected, or at least tempered, the tone of American proposals against Iran. Germany also initiated a continental effort to recast the “new” Iran as an authentic, albeit imperfect, regional democracy. In a campaign widely trumpeted as the “critical dialogue,” a diplomatic roundtable with senior Iranian and European officials was launched in July 1992. In closed-door meetings, a handful of top German officials warned Iran against continuing to carry out its trademark assassinations against dissidents in Europe, for it could put an end to all the business and diplomatic progress that had been made. The Iranians reassured their German counterparts that such actions belonged to a bygone era.


On September 17, 1992, two months after the start of the “critical dialogue,” the three highest-ranking members of Iran’s Democratic Party of Kurdistan, along with another key opposition figure, were gunned down at the Mykonos restaurant in Berlin. The incident remains among the most devastating blows the Kurds and the opposition have ever suffered.

Three months later, determined German officials went ahead with the second round of “critical dialogue” meetings between Iran and other EU members even as Germany’s own chief federal prosecutor was pointing to Tehran as the mastermind of the killings. Although the bygone had proven anything but, the “dialogue” continued.

For the nearly four years that the trial of the accused lasted, the case was in the headlines and was fervently discussed among German policy elite. “Whodunit?” was less of a question than how high up the leadership the orders for assassination went and whether those who had done it had intended to weaken Rafsanjani and the forces of moderation. By 1997, when the trial finally concluded, Rafsanjani’s second term was nearing its end and Iran was in the throes of another presidential election season. Two months before the vote, on April 10th, the court’s judgment came forth and it was historic. For the first time since World War II, a German court implicated a country’s entire political leadership in a crime—Iran’s top leaders, “moderate” and “hard-line” alike, including Supreme Leader Khamenei and President Rafsanjani, were named among the masterminds of the assassinations.

The condemnation was not merely symbolic. The EU itself took action. Every member nation recalled its ambassador from Tehran. With only a few weeks till the vote, Iran fell under a complete diplomatic blackout with Europe. When this process began, reformist candidate Mohammad Khatami was lagging in the polls. By election day in June 1997, the unparalleled international pressure, much like the 2013 sanctions on the regime today, catapulted him to victory.

The era of reform officially began and Khatami rolled out his own dialogue, the Dialogue of Civilizations, at the United Nations in the following meeting of the UN General Assembly. The smiling Khatami gave hope even to the Americans. A decade after the fact, the Clinton administration began to restage the German efforts. Diplomacy was in full swing. Disillusioned diplomats and advisers from the Carter administration got back into the Iran game, if only to reclaim their careers. What could be exchanged was exchanged—from wrestlers and librarians to handshakes between the former hostages and those who had seized the American embassy in Tehran in November 1979. Some sanctions were lifted. An official apology was even delivered by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright for the CIA-sponsored coup of 1953, though the significance of the CIA’s role in that coup was never as great as the agency and its enemies had led everyone to believe.

As all of these promising events warmed the hearts of Western policymakers, the most brutal and ambitious assault ever on dissidents and oppositions members, known as the Chain Murders, was taking place inside Iran. A dozen leading writers and political leaders were systematically murdered in the first two years of Khatami’s presidency. In 1999, when his young supporters staged the largest and most widespread demonstrations across the country since the 1979 revolution, the once beloved candidate they had worked to bring to power abandoned them to thugs who beat and imprisoned them. By the end of Khatami’s second term in 2005, the press that had briefly flourished was banned once again, and leading journalists and reformists were either languishing in prisons or taking refuge in Europe or the US. And candidate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had begun campaigning for president.


By revisiting this history, I do not intend to call Iran’s recent election meaningless, though given the historical precedents, the “moderate” Rouhani probably has about the same chances at bringing reform to Iran’s civil society or brokering a nuclear deal as the other two “moderates” who came before him. My intention is to show that looking at Iran through the Manichaean prism of “moderate” and “hard-line” has never served Western policymakers or Iran’s own opposition very well. What is seen in this looking glass is not what is, but what the observer wants to see.

Bifurcating the regime in this way has, in fact, robbed the West’s Iran policy of clarity and creativity. Rather than seeing a ubiquitous dictatorship with deeply entrenched interests, Americans have wrongly equated the “hard-line/moderate” split with other familiar dualities, such as liberal and conservative, or the quintessential good and evil. For US administrations, this simplistic view has led to policies as whimsical and incoherent as those of Tehran itself. Both Republican and Democratic administrations have declared themselves on the side of the “moderates” through State of the Union speeches and New Year messages to Iranians that look only to offer what Americans presume moderates want: apologies, a cake and a key, a good game of soccer, or respect and acknowledgment of Iranian pride, dignity, and culture. The hard job of thinking policy through in all of its complexity has been reduced to mere tweaking: If only President Obama had supported the Green Movement sooner in 2009, the protesters would have toppled the regime. If only George W. Bush had responded to the alleged letter that Tehran sent via the Swiss ambassador, US-Iran relations would have been normalized by now. If only Jimmy Carter had not admitted the ailing Shah into the US in 1979, the embassy in Tehran would not have been seized. If only the CIA had not staged a coup d’etat against Prime Minister Mossadegh in 1953, Iran would have been a democracy today.

Such beliefs—and indeed, much of America’s policy toward Iran—are guided more by narcissism than wisdom. The US has wholeheartedly believed in its own centrality in precisely the way that Tehran’s propagandists have painted it: America is at the root of all that’s bad or wrong in Iran and the world.

The sooner America dismisses this national egocentricity vis-à-vis Iran, the faster a sound and lasting policy toward Iran can be formed. Political maturity begins with getting beyond “moderates” and “hard-liners.” While rifts and power struggles, some of them profound, do exist within the regime, they are far better understood in mafia terms, as distinct groups warring over economic and political interests, rather than in the familiar and reassuring political terms of the West. Once policymakers have adjusted to this view, then policy will no longer hinge on siding with moderates against hard-liners, but in seeing all the existing divisions realistically and acting on that knowledge. Driven by their penchant for deal making and negotiating, the US diplomats will continue to pursue talks with Tehran. But there will exist no illusion that those short-term pursuits serve a long-term vision.

Roya Hakakian is the author of two books of poetry in Persian and the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship in nonfiction. Her most recent book is Assassins of the Turquoise Palace, an account of a 1992 plot to kill Iranian dissidents in Berlin.

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