June 30, 2013
One cheer for Hassan Rowhani’s election as president of Iran. The voting was apparently free and fair, without the intimidation and fraud that occurred at the last election four years ago. The official tally gave Rowhani a clear majority, eliminating the need for a run-off.
Aside from the accuracy of the count, however, there is little so far to applaud. True, Rowhani campaigned as a pragmatist, and his promises to broaden personal freedoms and end his nation’s diplomatic and economic isolation gave voters hope for the future. But the nature of Iran’s regime leaves little leeway for the fulfillment of presidential promises.
For one thing, the office of president in Iran, as in many countries around the world, is more ceremonial than substantive. Even more important, Iran is a self-styled Islamic republic whose policies are determined by unelected clerics. Rowhani was the most “moderate” of the six candidates, but that was because no one more moderate was allowed to run by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Rowhani’s predecessor as president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, could and did enrage the world with his anti-Western and anti-Semitic rhetoric, but he had little control over policy. There is no reason to think that the more soft-spoken Rowhani will have any more flexibility, especially when it comes to Iran’s determined program to attain nuclear-weapons capacity.
And even if he had the power, Rowhani’s previous record gives no indication that he dissents from current policy. Rowhani is no reformist outsider. He has been a loyal operative within the Iranian regime for over three decades in the armed forces and the Supreme Defense Council, and as secretary of the Supreme National Council. He was part of a special Iranian government committee that, according to an Argentine government prosecutor, planned the 1994 terrorist bombing of the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires — a terrorist attack that killed 85 and wounded hundreds more.
Most important for the greatest global security challenge Iran presents today, he also served as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator from 2003 through 2005, when an alarmed world began to pressure Iran to halt its aggressive program to attain a nuclear bomb. In 2004, while insisting that his country was only interested in peaceful uses of nuclear power, Rowhani agreed to suspend the enrichment of uranium, a concession he reversed a year later. The new president’s seemingly moderate move is sometimes cited today to suggest that he may be ripe for compromise on the nuclear issue.
But a speech he gave at the time puts the suspension in quite a different light. It was, he said, a ploy to lull the West into passivity so that a new nuclear plant could be constructed even as negotiations dragged on.
Rowhani’s remarks since his election suggest a more diplomatic approach to foreign relations than his predecessor, but no change on substance. After the White House announced that it stood ready to negotiate a “diplomatic solution” to the nuclear impasse, Rowhani said that countries that “speak to Iran in a respectable and accepting tone” would “hear back a positive answer.” But he conditioned future dialogue with the United States on three prerequisites. The U.S. “should not interfere in our internal affairs,” “recognize the rights of Iran, including nuclear rights,” and “stop its unilateral policies and pressures.”
The Rowhani presidency, then, will ignore American objections to the regime’s encroachment on the civil rights and civil liberties of women, gays, and members of the Bahai faith and other minorities. It likely will not end support for Hezbollah and other international terrorist groups, nor stop aiding Assad’s murderous campaign against the Syrian people. nd it will demand an end to economic sanctions imposed to deter a nuclear Iran, even as it insists on Iran’s right to go nuclear.
Bearing in mind Rowhani’s lack of independent power in this regime, his record of insincerity as nuclear negotiator, and continuing insistence on Iran’s right to continue flouting human-rights standards and international law, the West dare not let its guard down.
Amy Stoken is the director of the Chicago regional office of the American Jewish Committee.