If Iran is the most prominent state sponsor of terrorism in the world, can its president be called a “centrist?” What about if under that president Iran has become the world’s leading executioner of all people per capita, and of women and children on an absolute basis?
Does a president termed the “Diplomatic Sheikh,” a man who brags about deceiving the West in negotiations to buy time to advance Iran’s nuclear program; who describes such diplomatic engagement as “jihad;” and who calls for still more “jihad and resistance” against Israel while pointing 250,000 rockets at it, strike you as “centrist?”
If that president served for 40 years at the highest levels of the Islamic revolutionary regime as the first official following the overthrow of the shah who, standing steadfast at Ayatollah Khomeini’s side, called for public executions to chill opponents of the revolution, can he rightly be called a “centrist?” And how, pray tell, are we to distinguish between this supposedly centrist president and the Khomeinist regime under which he serves in the first place?
In Iran, “hardliner” supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini is truly supreme. Khameini blesses or directs every aspect of national policy. The president is constitutionally subordinate. Further, the supreme leader has power direct and indirect over the Guardian Council, which is responsible for vetting and approving all presidential candidates, not to mention ratifying all legislation parliament passes.
Who to Believe: U.S. Intelligence, or Your Lying Eyes?
Stated simply: The president serves at the pleasure of the supreme leader and his cronies. The national security and foreign policy establishment nevertheless would have us believe otherwise. Witness the intelligence community’s (IC) newly released assessment of worldwide threats. In the IC’s estimation:
Iranian centrist and hardline politicians increasingly will clash as they attempt to implement competing visions for Iran’s future…Centrists led by President Hasan Ruhani will continue to advocate greater social progress, privatization, and more global integration, while hardliners will view this agenda as a threat to their political and economic interests and to Iran’s revolutionary and Islamic character… Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s views are closer to those of the hardliners, but he has supported some of Ruhani’s efforts to engage Western countries and to promote economic growth…
That the IC views Iran’s leadership according to the moderate/hardliner split defies logic. Even President Obama’s lead negotiator for the Iran nuclear deal rejected this concept. In February 2016, Wendy Sherman stated it clearly: “Rouhani is not a moderate, he is a hardliner.” Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, another longtime member of the U.S. national security and foreign policy establishment, remarked in 2008 that he had “been involved in the search for the elusive Iranian moderate for 30 years.”
It strains credulity to believe that any Iranian president could be a “centrist” in the Western sense of a political moderate who supports a liberal, secular government, even if he wanted to, given the Iranian political system is wholly subservient to the religious authorities under Iran’s velāyat-e faqīh theocratic rule and those authorities rig the slate of potential presidential candidates. Yet the IC’s evaluation of Rouhani reflects a persistent problem throughout U.S. history—a Kim Yo Jong Syndrome of sorts—in our pollyannaish view of tyrannical regimes in general, and the Islamic world’s tyrants in particular.
We’ve Been Lying to Ourselves for a Long Time
A New York Times write-up from 1982 on the ascent of former KGB head Yuri Andropov to general secretary of the Soviet Union is characteristic of the West’s tendency to exude naïveté and willful blindness in its determination to find “moderates.” The Times notes that Andropov, the “independent thinker…better informed, if not necessarily more moderate, on relations with the United States” had a “taste for popular American music of the Glenn Miller variety, for books by such authors as Richard Llewellyn and Jacqueline Susann, for Scotch and French cognac and for fierce rounds of tennis.”
And who can forget “Uncle Joe” Stalin? Or even the West’s deluded belief that Adolph Hitler could be bargained with?
In Iran, as Gates alluded to, the United States has been seeking “moderates” in leadership since before Khomeini assumed power in 1979. According to diplomatic cables released in 2016, prior to the shah’s ouster, Khomeini told Jimmy Carter’s White House, “You will see we are not in any particular animosity with the Americans,” and his revolutionary Islamic regime would be “a humanitarian one, which will benefit the cause of peace and tranquillity for all mankind.” Khomeini’s wooing of President Carter and the U.S. national security and foreign policy establishment worked, enabling him to return to Iran and take over.
The late Ayatollah Rafsanjani, who succeeded Khamenei as president and ruled from 1989 to 1997, was also popularly portrayed as a “moderate.” Prior to assuming the presidency, as commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps—which should tell you all you need to know about his moderation—Rafsanjani was responsible for carrying out Khomeinei’s fatwa calling for the execution of 30,000 political prisoners. Rafsanjani deceived both the Reagan and Bush administrations over Iran Contra and his professed desire to help free American hostages from Lebanon, respectively.
In fact, Rafsanjani’s reign conducted Islamic terror, as he was implicated in foreign assassinations in Europe, the Buenos Aires bombings of the Israeli Embassy in 1992 and AMIA Jewish center in 1994, and the Saudi Arabia Khobar Tower bombing in 1996. Rafsanjani was unsurprisingly also the father of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. More on the Rafsanjani myth with some cameos from President Rouhani here.
The Islamic Revolution’s Leaders Aren’t Moderates
Rafasanjani’s successor, Muhammad Khatami, was similarly cast by many in politics and the media as a “reformer.” He issued a call for a “Dialogue of Civilizations” after entering office, a call the Clinton administration gleefully heeded.
What was Khatami’s record while in Iranian leadership? Among other things, Khatami: Banned dozens of newspapers, oversaw skyrocketing increases in public executions and stonings of women, and engaged in obfuscatory nuclear negotiations with the West, led by then-Secretary of the Supreme National Security Counsel Hassan Rouhani, which were used to buy time to advance the program.
Khatami’s orientation should have been clear before he ever became president, as he served as minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance from 1982 to 1992 — that is, as the Islamic Revolution swept the country — censored more than 600 publications, and sat on a ruling council responsible for passing death sentences of thousands of political prisoners in a bloody 1988 purge.
The same sort of thinking reflected in the U.S. government’s view of Iran can likewise be seen in popular narratives propagated in recent years over other rival Islamic actors, such as that Bashar al-Assad was a reformer, Hezbollah consisted of “moderate” elements, that the “moderate” Muslim Brotherhood could be cleaved from its violent jihadist offshoots as a legitimate “political Islamist” entity, and that the Syrian rebels were freedom fighters. We repeatedly romanticize and engage in wishful thinking regarding those who skillfully play to our biases, and sometimes even when they do not.
In reality, Rouhani appears a centrist only if one focuses on his style and ignores his substance: Rouhani is a bespectacled, seemingly mild-mannered Cheshire cat of a man, with the air of an urbane European diplomat. He smiles and speaks in a calm, reassuring voice, while twisting the knife in the West’s back.
Rouhani sits in the number two position of the Islamic revolutionary regime precisely because he is an effective public spokesperson and negotiator who covers for a tyrannical theocracy hellbent on expanding its revolution worldwide. His is the face the West in its pathology wants to see and believe.
We Need to See the Truth, Not What’s Comfortable
The IC’s assessment of Iran’s political system as consisting of warring moderates and hardliners is not inconsequential. How it views the nation’s dictatorial regime will impact the recommendations it makes to the Trump administration on everything from the Iran deal, to uprisings in the Persian public square, to the Khomeinists’ efforts to grow the Shiite Crescent in the Levant and beyond.
A lack of understanding about something so core to a nation as the orientation of its leadership in foreign policy is highly alarming. We cannot afford to get it wrong on any hostile regime, let alone the world’s leading state sponsor of terror armed with more ballistic missiles than any nation in the Middle East.
What Iran expert Michael Rubin wrote in early 2016, reflecting on the shattered dreams of the Iran moderate-seekers throughout U.S. history, is prescient and ever-relevant:
Every single administration since Jimmy Carter has sought to reach out to ‘reformists’ in order to privilege them against ‘hard-liners.’ In no case did American partners win out.
…In each case, the United States got played…The simple fact is that sometimes adversaries use English fluency or their American experience less to embrace Western values and more to learn better how to pull the wool over the eyes of Americans.
… just because factions exist does not mean that they represent true debate about the character or ideology of the regime. To believe they do is to be guilty of projecting a Western sense of political debate onto adversaries, and that is a recipe not for success but rather for the continued failure of U.S. intelligence and diplomacy.
Indeed, if we wish to thwart Iran’s imperialist aims, we must stop projecting and start learning from history. A regime based on spreading Islamic supremacism worldwide will only contain “moderates” and “centrists” insofar as they differ tactically or superficially from the leading religious authorities.
On the strategic level, all are united in their wish to bury the West. Otherwise, they would not be part of the regime. The purpose of this fabricated factionalism is always and everywhere to exploit our prejudices and advance their interests. Let us apply this knowledge, rather than succumbing once again to disastrous delusion.