Since his surprise victory in Iran’s presidential elections in June, Hassan Rouhani has enjoyed undeserved popularity among Western policymakers and opinion-formers alike. Though hardly a reformist, Rouhani has immediately won the label of moderate from all corners of the transatlantic political spectrum.
The Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt — the most likely candidate to replace Catherine Ashton as the European Union’s High Representative for foreign affairs next year and thus to be the lead negotiator with Iran — tweeted on June 15: “We should be open and see what changes election of Hassan Rouhani as new President of Iran might bring. We need to engage with Iran.” When, six weeks later, the US House of Representatives passed new sanctions against Iran, Bildt opined that the decision was “counterproductive at this time”.
Ashton’s predecessor, Javier Solana, took an even bigger leap of faith and flew to Tehran to attend Rouhani’s inauguration on August 4. When he was directing EU foreign policy, Solana repeatedly hit the brick wall of Iran’s negotiating tactics, and this included the period when Rouhani, as secretary of the Supreme Council for National Security, was in charge of them. Showing how hope can triumph over experience, Solana still went on to declare to Bloomberg News: “Based on what I know of him, he is a politician who’s perceptive and open-minded.”
Rouhani is indeed so open-minded that on International Quds Day, the last Friday of Ramadan and key date in Iran’s revolutionary calendar — an Iranian-orchestrated anti-Israel hate-fest in support of Palestinian victory over the Zionists — he called Israel “a sore on the body of the Islamic world”.
So accustomed was the Western media to former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s preposterous Holocaust denials, calls for Israel’s destruction, and reference to UN resolutions as “torn papers” that Rouhani’s statement seemed like interfaith dialogue by comparison.
Confusion was caused early on by a report from Isna, Iran’s news agency, that Rouhani had said Israel is a “wound” that “had to be removed”. A Twitter frenzy ensued to claim that he had not mentioned the word “Israel” nor that it should be removed, and then to argue about whether the Farsi word he used — zahm — meant “wound” or “sore”. The debate settled on “sore”, which was viewed as proof of his moderation.
Rouhani is unlikely to invoke heavenly creatures from the UN podium, as Ahmedinejad did; he will probably refrain from engaging in Holocaust denial; and he will seek to engage the West in substantive negotiations to end the nuclear impasse.
He is definitely more moderate than Ahmadinejad, then — much as Nikita Khrushchev was more moderate than Joseph Stalin. But he is no Mikhail Gorbachev.
In a sense, there has been a softening in rhetoric, but no evidence yet that in substance Rouhani will be any different from his predecessors. And why should he be?
First, we should judge the man by his words. He agreed temporarily to halt Iran’s uranium enrichment in 2003, but not because he intended to comply with UN resolutions or the agreement reached with the British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and his French and German counterparts (the E3) on October 21, 2003. He did so as a tactical move that spared Iran from sanctions while not impeding overall progress towards its nuclear goals.
His actions matter even more than his words. Rouhani took charge of quashing pro-democracy student demonstrations in 1999. He was at the helm of Iran’s security apparatus when the Islamic Republic ordered the systematic murder of opponents abroad. Many of these hits took place on his 16-year watch as secretary of the Supreme Council for National Security.
He has appointed Hossein Dehghan, a senior Revolutionary Guard official and one of the masterminds of the bombing of the US marine and French paratrooper barracks in Beirut in 1983, to the post of defence minister. A man who can count the lives of 241 US soldiers and 58 French paratroopers on his conscience will help to steer Rouhani’s “moderate” new course.
He will be joined by another “moderate”, Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi, the new justice minister, who spent 12 years (1987-99) as deputy minister of intelligence in charge of foreign operations. He is accused of overseeing the murder of thousands of prisoners in the summer of 1988 and the assassination of Iranian opponents both at home and abroad during his time in office.
“Moderates” of the same type populate Rouhani’s cabinet, most of them people with links to powerful clans in the Iranian nomenklatura, such as the Larijanis and Rafsanjanis, or to the security establishment — or both.
With such a pedigree, it is hard not to dismiss early enthusiasm for Rouhani. Although anyone is clearly better than Ahmadinejad — which is a bit like saying that death by hanging is better than burning at the stake.