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Iran's New President is Lipstick on a Pig

Bigoted buffoon Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has finally been fired as the president of Iran and replaced by the supposed moderate reformer Hassan Rowhani, who just won a landslide victory with more than fifty percent of the vote in a crowded field of eight candidates.

“The sun of my moderation has risen,” announced Arman, a reformist newspaper. The election, according to another reformist newspaper called Shargh, signifies “the return of hope and victory for reformers and moderates.”

Some journalists in the West are swooning, as well. Rowhani’s election, writes Karl Vick at Time magazine, “may bring the country out of the severe economic and diplomatic isolation imposed by world powers intent on Iran’s nuclear program.” “Hassan Rouhani's victory in the Iranian election is truly stunning,” writes Jonathan Steele at The Guardian. “It opens a window of hope for an easing of tension between Iran and the west on the strained nuclear file but also on the more urgent issue – the self-destructive clash between Shia and Sunni Islam that is killing thousands in Syria and Iraq and threatens the entire Middle East region.”

Well, maybe, but probably not. It’s way too early to get carried away.

First of all, Rowhani is not the head of state. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is. Rowhani is basically a powerless figurehead. So there’s that.

Second, Iran’s election only looks democratic and meaningful if you squint hard enough at it. So stop squinting and look at it squarely. Khamenei, Iran’s actual tyrannical ruler, wasn’t elected. He was hand-picked by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. And Khamenei and his claque of appointed jurists hand-picked all the presidential candidates who just stood for election. Those they didn’t approve of (and they were legion) did not get to run.

How would you feel about the next American election if Barack Obama or Dick Cheney were to select all the candidates you could choose from? Iranian elections are a little like Henry Ford’s first line of Model-T cars. His customers, he famously said, could have their cars painted any color they like as long as it’s black.

Iranian expat Sohrab Ahmari put it bluntly, and aptly, in The Wall Street Journal. “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.”

But let’s pretend, for the sake of argument and analysis, that none of those things are true or that none of them matter. However he got the job, Rowhani is being billed as a moderate and a reformer. But the problem with the word “moderate” is that its meaning is entirely relative. The Muslim Brotherhood is moderate compared with Al Qaeda. Bashar al-Assad is moderate compared with Saddam Hussein. Fidel Castro is moderate compared with Josef Stalin. General Franco was moderate compared with Adolf Hitler.

But are the Muslim Brothers, Bashar al-Assad, Fidel Castro, and Francisco Franco moderates compared with Western political figures who are labeled as moderates? No, no, no, and no.

It’s not even clear that Rowhani is a moderate compared with Ali Khamenei, the only comparison that actually matters.

“Hassan Rouhani is a regime pillar,” notes Lee Smith. “As an early follower of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Rouhani joined him in exile in Paris, and over the last 34 years, the 64-year-old Qom-educated cleric has held key positions in the regime’s political echelons, and served in top military jobs during Iran’s decade-long war with Iraq. As Iran’s chief interlocutor with the West on the regime’s nuclear portfolio, Rouhani boasted of deceiving his negotiating partners. Domestically, he has threatened to crush protestors “mercilessly and monumentally,” and likely participated in the campaign of assassinations of the regime’s Iranian enemies at home and abroad, especially in Europe. Currently, Rouhani serves as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s representative on the supreme national security council.”

Even if Rowhani was a genuine reformer, it’s not at all clear that he’d be able to change anything. Remember Mohammad Khatami? He was Iran’s moderate reformist president from 1997 to 2005. He racked up a grand total of zero reforms in eight years.

It’s not even clear that he was a moderate or a reformer.

In July 1999 thousands of university students demanded the hard-liners in the regime resign from the government. They didn’t, of course. And Khatami and Rowhani—the old and new “moderate reformers” respectively—brazenly sided with the hard-liners. You can read all about it Countdown to Crisis by Kenneth R. Timmerman, but here’s the relevant passage quoting Rowhani, the new president.

“Addressing the crowd [of regime loyalists], Hassan Rouhani, one of Khatami’s vice presidents, promised to arrest pro-democracy protesters and execute them. ‘Two nights ago we received decisive instruction to deal with these elements,’ he announced. ‘And at dusk yesterday we received a decisive revolutionary order to crush mercilessly and monumentally any move of these opportunistic elements wherever it may occur. From today our people shall witness how our law-enforcement force and our heroic Bassij [militia] shall deal with these opportunists and riotous elements, if they simply dare to show their faces.’”

Rowhani has a track record of thuggishness abroad as well as at home. John-Paul Pagano dug up some old reports from Iranian state media detailing Rowhani’s support for the region’s terrorist organizations and his opposition to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

IRNA news agency (Tehran, in English 1910 gmt 4 Apr 94) reported that Rohani, who is also the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, reiterated “Iran's firm support for Islamic resistance in southern Lebanon”.

According to an IRNA news agency report (2036 gmt 4 Apr 94), Rohani told the leaders of the 10 Palestinian factions that “what Yasir Arafat has signed with the Zionist regime as an agreement is ‘self humiliating’ and will not realize any of the goals and rights of the Palestinian nation”.

If Rowhani goes on record right now as president retracting his support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and proclaiming his support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that would be interesting. It would be even more interesting if Ali Khamenei did these things instead since he’s the one with the power. Neither are likely to happen, nor would we be wise to trust the sincerity of such statements until we see them backed up with action because Rowhani as well as Khamenei has a track record of deception in foreign affairs.

Abbas Milani, the director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University and of the outstanding book The Shah, read Rowhani’s recent memoir and had some interesting things to say about it a few months ago in The New Republic. “The recent memoir by Hassan Rouhani,” he wrote, “who was for several years Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, and is now a possible compromise candidate in the upcoming presidential election, offers a more objective account of Iran’s nuclear strategy and what happened during the negotiations. More than once Rouhani admits that Iran’s strategy was to buy time and thereby to create a new reality on the ground. More than once he reiterates the view that Iran was willing to make concessions—such as the temporary suspension of enrichment activities—only if it would not delay their overall goal of achieving a full fuel cycle and of advancing the other relevant technologies (such as building more sophisticated centrifuges).”

So what do we have here in Iran? A man who barely won fifty percent of the vote in a rigged electoral system, who supports vicious repression of Iranian democracy activists as well as international terrorist organizations, who opposes Middle East peace, and who freely admits to deceiving Western diplomats about his country’s nuclear program to buy time.

There is nothing encouraging here whatsoever, so don’t be a sucker.

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