My thoughts on Iran's great moderate hype:
Iran’s Great Moderate Hope Hype
With Dr. Hassan Rouhani’s presidential “victory” in Iran, many argue that we should be optimistic and that his sanctioned “win” indicated the shifting political tides in Tehran. After all, he claims to be a moderate, has a background in nuclear negotiation, and adopts a more conciliatory tone toward the West. His 51 percent victory suggests that the Iranian people have embraced his candidacy as a gesture toward true reform. As a cleric, Rouhani may have the religious credentials to challenge the ruling elite. And perhaps most importantly, Rouhani’s experience working on the nuclear issue have led many to hope that Iran might finally have a willing participant in ongoing negotiations. This all sounds like a significant improvement from the status quo, if only it weren’t a performance we had seen before, which started promisingly and ended disastrously.
Mohamed Khatami ascended to the presidency in 1997 with all of the same fanfare. For the first time the Iranian people had elected a populist—someone who would represent their interest inside the insular establishment. Two years later, when students rioted over the closure of a reformist newspaper, their would-be advocate stood blithely by as the regime brutally crushed the demonstrations. Adding insult to injury, Khatami declined giving a speech at Tehran University the following year. The great reformist hope proved to be a feckless pawn in the Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamanei’s calculating game. Khamanei effectively destroyed Khatami’s reputation with the people and dismantled the reformist movement Khatami had helped to build.
Sixteen years later, and how easily we forget. Following news of the Rouhani victory, former British foreign secretary David Miliband tweeted, “Iran's managed democracy has produced a result more democratic than managed. Real opportunity for transparent and respectful diplomacy now.” A spokesperson for the National Iranian American Council in Washington, DC claimed that “Rouhani’s victory in 2013 is the Iranian equivalent to Obama’s victory in 2008: an electorate that voted overwhelmingly for hope and change, understanding that the process will be a marathon, not a sprint.” But these admirably optimistic analyses fail to account for history.
If we look at how the Supreme Leader manipulated Khatami, we can guess what might happen next. Khamanei will likely use Rouhani to buy time by creating a false sense of optimism about changes on the horizon, using moderate rhetoric to lure everyone back to the negotiating table. But ultimately, Rouhani has little real power over Khamanei. It’s unlikely that Rouhani will have any ability to influence Iranian nuclear or foreign policy, which are set by the Supreme Leader. And just as the international community and the Iranian people observe what appears to be Rouhani making real progress, Khamanei will undermine his authority and leave him incapable of challenging policies over which he has no real control.
Even if we were to give Rouhani the benefit of the doubt that he is the moderate he claims to be, Iran needs a president who is willing to directly and openly challenge the Supreme Leader. Historically this doesn’t go over very well. Two prominent moderates, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, are both under house arrest for standing up to the regime during the Green Revolution in 2009. And the late Grand Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montezari not only lost his status as Ayatollah Khomeini’s anointed successor, but also spent his final years living under some combination of house arrest and forced isolation for challenging the regime’s foreign and domestic policies.
How far is Rouhani willing to go to push a moderate agenda? Given that the Guardian Council approved his candidacy in the first presidential election since the revolution that nearly toppled the regime in 2009, probably not very far. And while the regime may have actually been surprised by Rouhani’s victory, the Guardian Council would never have approved any candidate unless they were certain that he could be controlled. Let’s also remember that as a cleric in Iran, Rouhani benefits from the current system of clerical supremacy, even if he claims to be a voice of moderation.
Is the nuclear issue the exception where Rouhani may be willing to challenge Khamanei both publicly and privately? It’s unlikely that Rouhani would obstruct such a popular policy except insofar as Khamenei hopes to tease the international community with hints of a deal. Sanctions are having a crippling impact on the Iranian economy, which gives the regime a significant incentive to exchange promises of reform and progress on nuclear negotiations for economic relief. In particular, Khamanei may decide that Rouhani is a useful vehicle for gaining economic breathing room if his moderate posturing can be used as a bargaining chip to get sanctions on the central bank lifted.
If the regime decides to reengage with negotiations on the nuclear program, the international community should be wary of Tehran’s long history of maintaining secret enrichment facilities and cheating the international non-proliferation regime. The Supreme Leader has been consistent in his support of the nuclear program, a commitment that only deepened after he saw Muammar Gadaffi relinquish his weapons of mass destruction and get summarily executed by rebels who were supported by NATO bombing. For Khamanei, the nuclear program protects Iran against invasion and represents just about the only regime policy that the majority of citizens support.
So while Rouhani is certainly an improvement over Ahmadinejad, it would be shortsighted to celebrate this election as a sure sign of real change. History teaches us that politics in Iran is an opaque charade controlled by the ruling elite, who all essentially play for the same team regardless of how moderate they claim to be. This regime is frighteningly good at delaying progress and preventing foreign intervention in its affairs. If the regime effectively markets Rouhani’s victory as a sign of real progress, the international community ought to be careful not to mistake hollow gestures for real reform.
Which isn’t to say that we should surrender any hope of real progress in Iran. The people are growing tired of the regime, international isolation, and economic hardship; we just don’t know what the breaking point is. The challenge the international community faces is how to engage productively with the new regime without mistaking cosmetic reform for real change.