Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani spoke on the phone for a couple of minutes on Friday, and NBC News breathlessly reported that this was “the first time leaders from the U.S. and Iran have directly communicated since the 1979 Iranian revolution.”
That’s not exactly true. Hassan Rouhani is not Iran’s leader.
Supreme Guide Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is Iran’s leader. He is the head of state—the dictator—and the one who makes all sovereign decisions. And of course Rouhani is loyal and does what he’s told. Khamenei and his hand-picked Guardian Council vetted him thoroughly. Otherwise he wouldn’t be president.
Iranian expat Sohrab Ahmari summed it up bluntly, and aptly, in The Wall Street Journal after Rouhani won the presidential show election in August. “This is what democracy looks like in a theocratic dictatorship. Iran's presidential campaign season kicked off last month when an unelected body of 12 Islamic jurists disqualified more than 600 candidates. Women were automatically out; so were Iranian Christians, Jews and even Sunni Muslims. The rest, including a former president, were purged for possessing insufficient revolutionary zeal. Eight regime loyalists made it onto the ballots. One emerged victorious on Saturday.”
It is still historic than Obama spoke on the phone to a second-tier regime official, but it’s not like Richard Nixon going to China and meeting with Mao Zedong. Nor is this the beginning of the kind of détente Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev established near the end of the Cold War.
For that, the President of the United States would need to meet with the Supreme Guide of Iran. And the Supreme Guide of Iran would need to be reasonable. He would need to pull the kind of reversal of Iranian policy that Anwar Sadat did in Egypt after the Yom Kippur War. None of those things are happening. I wish they were, but they’re not.
So let’s not get carried away.
Seriously, getting excited about Rouhani is a like foreign heads of state swooning when the United States gets a new Senate Majority Leader.
Plenty of Middle Easterners, Arab and Israeli alike, are alarmed at Washington’s naiveté here. I can understand where the naiveté comes from. Most Americans severely underestimate how ruthless and cunning Middle Eastern leaders have to be to survive. We have a hard time imagining it because our own political experience here at home is so much milder. Kevin Spacey’s ruthless and cunning fictional member of Congress Francis Underwood in the Netflix series House of Cards isn’t even a bat boy in the league the Middle East plays in.
Look, I’d like to see friendly and normal relations between the United States and Iran as much as everyone else. It’s bound to happen sooner or later. The Iranian people are much less hostile to the United States and the West than the regime is, and all dictatorships eventually fall. Often they’re replaced with new dictatorships, but that seems much less likely in Iran than in, say, Egypt. Iranian culture is much more advanced.
Either way, Iran’s next revolution will almost certainly be anti-Islamist since the Islamists have ruled over and ruined everything for the last 34 years. There is no one to rebel against except the Islamists. Iranian writer Reza Zarabi put it this way a few years before the failed Green Revolution broke out. “The name Iran, which used to be equated with such things as luxury, fine wine, and the arts, has become synonymous with terrorism. When the Islamic Republic government of Iran finally meets its demise, they will have many symbols and slogans as testaments of their rule, yet the most profound will be their genocide of Islam, the black stain that they have put on this faith for many generations to come.”
There is another possibility that would also be welcome. The regime might partially reform itself after Khamenei dies, and Khamenei is an old man. Even the most ideologically deranged regimes are capable of reform when leaders pass on. China changed drastically after Mao. Vietnam changed as much after Ho Chi Minh. Burma (Myanmar) may be in the process that sort of change now.
But Iran isn’t there yet. Khamenei is still alive and unwavering. He is still the biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the world, and he's still perfectly willing to murder Americans. Just a few weeks ago Iran’s Revolutionary Guards plotted terrorist attacks against the American Embassy in Baghdad—and that was after Rouhani was elected. The regime still has no respect whatsoever for civilized norms of international politics and still, more than thirty years after the hostage crisis, views diplomats and their support staff as military targets.
The only thing that has changed in Tehran is the mask.