About that moderate, reformist new Iranian president

New Iranian President Hassan Rouhani

While some western media outlets are waxing lyrical about the moderation of the new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, there are many more sober voices warning us that not only is Rouhani not a moderate or a reformer, he is in fact as reactionary and extremist as his predecessor, the (un)late unlamented Ahmadinejad.

Writing in the Independent, Peyvand Khorsandi, an Iranian exile, explains that he sees no reform or moderation at all, just the same old vicious regime:

For what it’s worth, I think he’s atrocious, and I was surprised when Iranians voted him in; by all accounts they were petrified at the prospect of four years under one of his even more reactionary rivals.

I say even more reactionary because there should be no doubt the man is one of ‘Them’ – an unabashed Islamist: if he is a moderate or a reformer, I’m the Jolly Green Giant.

You can’t be a moderate in Iran. Protecting the sanctity of the Islamic Republic’s founding Khomeini-ist principles, and its resulting injustices, is your raison d’etre and if you’re not up to the task, you’re dead.


For years this guy was the Secretary of Iran’s feared Supreme National Security Council.

Countless killings occurred under his watch; not least during the student uprising of 1999 which Rouhani vowed to “crush mercilessly and monumentally”.


So the fact that Rouhani promises to be a bit friendlier to the West doesn’t mean much, because human rights in Iran are not a concern of Western governments any more than they are in Bahrain or in Saudi Arabia. (The last thing we want to do is upset such allies.)


– the president in Iran is known as ‘the President’, not ‘the ruler’. The ruler is ‘the Supreme Leader’. So it was wrong for Newsnight, in the run-up Rouhani’s inauguration, to say that “eight years of Ahmadinejad’s rule is coming to a close” and worse still, to consider what the “new regime” will bring.

What new regime? Indeed, what new president?

Sohrab Ahmari in The Wall Street Journal has a very hard-hitting article about the similarly “moderate” new Iranian cabinet under Rouhani’s leadership:

Hasan Rouhani’s inauguration as Iran’s president has renewed the Obama administration’s dreams of rapprochement with Tehran. In a Sunday statement, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney expressed hope that “the new Iranian government will heed the will of the voters by making choices that will lead to a better life for the Iranian people.” Should the Islamic Republic choose to engage, Mr. Carney added, “it will find a willing partner in the United States.”

Mr. Rouhani has already been “making choices” that the U.S. might want to take into account before becoming a “willing partner” in dealing with the regime. Consider the Iranian president’s new cabinet, announced on Sunday. His picks were generally hailed in the American media as “reform minded or moderate technocrats” (NBC), as “more moderate” (New York Times ), or as bearers of “an olive branch to the U.S.” (New Republic).


Start with Mahmoud Alavi, Mr. Rouhani’s choice for minister of intelligence and a member of the Assembly of Experts, the body that selects and nominally oversees the country’s supreme leader. “Sacrificing life is easy for a nation in which a culture of martyrdom has been institutionalized,” Mr. Alavi said at a ceremony last fall. “The Iranian nation . . . will never back down against the arrogance.”

“The arrogance” is the Tehran regime’s shorthand for the U.S. and its allies. But Mr. Alavi isn’t averse to referring more specifically to the United States. In October, he declared on Iranian state TV: “The Americans can’t even take on the pupils of our revolution, namely Hezbollah and Hamas. How dare they even consider a plot against our nation when twice they’ve been defeated by our pupils?”

Or consider Mostafa Pourmohammadi, designated by President Rouhani as Iran’s minister of justice. Speaking at an event in February convened by the Islamic Republic’s inspector general’s office, which he headed at the time, Mr. Pourmohammadi said: “With our actions and our resistance, we have cornered the arrogance. We have severely frightened and confused the arrogance.”

Then there is Mohammad Javad Zarif, Mr. Rouhani’s pick for the foreign ministry, whose role as the Islamic Republic’s ambassador to the United Nations from 2002-07 won him much admiration in the West.


Yet Mr. Zarif has also been a vehement defender of Tehran’s virulent campaign against Israel and of the regime’s support for Hamas and Hezbollah. Asked at an Asia Society talk in New York earlier this year if Hezbollah is a terrorist organization, Mr. Zarif flatly responded: “No.”


How could it be that President Rouhani, whose election was greeted in the West as the triumph of a reformer and the promise of positive change, isn’t quite as reasonable as he seems?

His supporters might suggest that he has matured from the days when, as the Iranian newspaper Etela’at quoted him in May 1995, Mr. Rouhani told a group of pro-regime students that “the beautiful cry of ‘Death to America’ unites our nation.”


Fast-forward to May 8, 2013, when Mr. Rouhani was campaigning for the presidency. “Saying ‘Death to America’ is easy,” Mr. Rouhani said in a speech in the city of Karaj,


Saying that the new Iranian president is a moderate is easy. Finding evidence of it is hard.

That evidence of moderation is certainly missing in action when it comes to Syria and Iran’s support of Assad, as noted by The Atlantic:

Yet for all the talk about Rouhani and nukes, there has been much less analysis of his record on Syria. Perhaps even more than Tehran’s nuclear program, where Rouhani as a negotiator showed himself to be consistently mendacious, the Islamic Republic’s machinations in Syria and Rouhani’s Syrian track record are windows into the soul of the Iranian regime and its new president.


But if Rouhani’s moderation and ability to effect change is only aspirational on our part, Washington risks allowing Tehran to solidify its grip on Syria and to develop an irreversible Iranian nuclear capability.

Washington needs to treat Iran’s Syria policy and its nuclear policy as two sides of the same coin and essential to Tehran’s drive for regional hegemony, because that is the way Iran’s revolutionary elite sees it. At his swearing-in ceremony on Sunday, Rouhani told Syrian Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi that, “[n]o force in the world can shake the solid, strategic and historic relations that bind the two countries in friendship.” Rouhani assailed foreign intervention in Syria, characterizing it as a “failed attempt” to target the “axis of resistance and rejection to Zionist-American plans in the region.”

Syria’s importance to Tehran cannot be overstated: Mehdi Taeb, a member of the Supreme Leader’s inner circle, labeled Syria “the 35th district of Iran,” with “…greater strategic importance for Iran than Khuzestan,” referring to one of Iran’s outlying provinces. “If we lose Syria we will not even be able to keep Tehran.”


In April, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, paid a visit to Tehran, on the eve of Hezbollah’s offensive in Qusayr, which proved to be a key battle in reversing the momentum of the Syrian rebels around the Homs area. Nasrallah’s visit underscored Syria’s importance to Khamenei. He was reportedly told to go all in, regardless of the cost. A reporter close to Hezbollah added that, during this trip, Nasrallah received the necessary religious ruling from Khamenei for the Hezbollah offensive in Syria.


The public record suggests that Rouhani, in fact, is closely aligned with Khamenei and Suleimani: His statements reveal a conspiratorial, anti-American, and anti-Israel worldview that justifies Iranian intervention in support of Assad.

Rouhani describes the uprising in Syria as an American and Israeli conspiracy aimed at undermining the “resistance” to Israel.


The U.S. can’t assume that increased concessions will strengthen Rouhani’s “moderate” position in the Iranian political structure. Instead, the onus should be on Rouhani to demonstrate his influence and moderation.

Sanctions are also likely not enough: Since Tehran doesn’t appear to fear the possibility of American military force, President Obama can strengthen his warning that he does not bluff through intermediate military steps.


The strategic designs of the Iranian regime and its new president are much more difficult to obfuscate on the killing fields of Syria than in the highly technical and arcane language of nuclear physics. The only way to thwart Tehran’s regional and nuclear ambitions is to treat the Iranian regime as it is, not as we wish it to be.

Those are very wise words indeed. Let us hope someone in the US Administration is reading them and taking them into consideration, especially as we learned this week that Iran is building a new rocket launching site, apparently to test its ballistic missiles.

Thankfully, there appears to be at least some progress on the diplomatic front, as Israel’s former intelligence chief Amos Yadlin declared that the US coming round to an Israeli strike on Iran. I guess we’ll know that the Americans have truly internalised the threat from Iran when they not only accede to an Israeli strike, but participate in it.

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2 Responses to About that moderate, reformist new Iranian president

  1. Reality says:

    We cannot afford to wait until America internalises the Iranian threat-they are (according to one article I just read) still pushing the “settlement” canard in order to pull Israel back for “peace talks” but are aware that Israel too has its demands(re Iran). Personally I don’t believe that the USA administration will ever give us its blessing or help if we attack Iran ,as they can then say to the world that Israel always acts alone & therefore put all the blame on the fallout of that(“rash move” as they put it in article) on Israel & isolate it further. We have to learn to stand our ground with the fear(less)ful Americans

  2. Pingback: The (im)moderate Rouhani’s charm offensive at the UN and Obama’s appeasement | Anne's Opinions

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