July 1, 2013
A number of observers, including
The New York Times,
have exulted that the recent presidential elections produced a “moderate”
winner, Hassan Rouhani. They suggest this could signify a new era in Iranian
Perhaps, but then again, perhaps not.
When it comes to Iran, it would be
wishful thinking to allow hope to substitute for experience.
Let’s bear in mind three salient facts.
First, to become a presidential
candidate, Rouhani had to pass muster ideologically with Supreme Leader Ali
Hosseini Khamenei and his entourage. Of scores of would-be candidates, only six
made it to the ballot. That ought to say something about who Rouhani really is.
If his positions deviated all that much from those of the regime, he would have
been barred from running.
Indeed, it may have been precisely his
more “moderate” exterior, compared to his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad,
that proved so appealing to the powers-that-be. After all, Ahmadinejad’s antics
made it especially difficult even for those most inclined to rationalize, or
appease, Iranian behavior to do so persuasively.
Second, in the Iranian system, the
president has limited powers. Khamenei is in full charge. Thus, Rouhani’s
ability to introduce change, even assuming he would want to, is severely
circumscribed. Consider the limited impact of the last “moderate” Iranian
president, Mohammad Khatami, who served from 1997 to 2005.
And third, Rouhani has been an integral
part of the post-1979 Iranian system, not a rebellious outsider.
As one telling example, he is reported to
have been present at a fateful 1993 meeting of the Iranian Supreme National
Security Council—he was its secretary at the time—when the decision was made to
bomb the AMIA building in central Buenos Aires. That meeting has been
documented by the relentless Argentine prosecutor in the case, Alberto Nisman.
The actual attack was carried out in July 1994. Eighty-five people were killed
and hundreds wounded in one of the deadliest assaults in Latin America in decades.
Looking ahead, if Rouhani really wishes
to help steer Iran in a different, more peaceful direction, here are four
places to start.
The history of the last century painfully
demonstrates the seemingly infinite capacity of some Western policy-makers and
security experts to deceive themselves, with devastating results. The stakes
with Iran could not be higher. Concrete deeds must be the measure of any change
in the country’s behavior. Anything less might end up as the dangerous pursuit
of an illusion.
It is high time to put an end to Iranian
support for international terrorism. Jihadist groups like Hezbollah, which
operate in Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East, would be
seriously weakened without Iranian weaponry, training, and funding. And nearly
20 years after the AMIA bombing in Argentina, Iran should come clean about its
own complicity in the attack and hand over those officials, including the
current minister of defense, who are the objects of Interpol red notices and
are sought by Argentine authorities.
- Iran continues to prop up the
murderous Assad regime in Syria. More than 90,000 people have been killed in a
civil war now in its third year. Iran is a central player. Will Rouhani steer
Iran away from continued involvement in crimes against humanity?
- Iran is a notorious violator
of human rights. Not only are its presidential elections perverted versions of
democracy, as only approved candidates can participate, but respected human
rights watchdog agencies have cataloged a litany of violations of fundamental
liberties. Try being a Baha’i in Iran today, or a feminist leader, or a gay activist,
or a student protester, or a crusading journalist. And Iran uses capital
punishment indiscriminately, including, as has been documented, against
- And if Rouhani seeks better
relations with the world, then Iran must end its long-standing pursuit of
nuclear-weapons capability, as the United Nations Security Council and
International Atomic Energy Agency have repeatedly demanded. For years, Iran
has managed to run circles around European and American negotiators seeking a
deal on its nuclear program, all the while buying time to develop the program
further. Rouhani himself was part of that process, at one point boasting about
his ability to outmaneuver his Western diplomatic interlocutors. Has he
changed? If so, here is a good place to begin.
David Harris is Executive Director,
American Jewish Committee