News must be new but it needn’t be surprising. The decidedly unsurprising news out of Iran last week: There was an election (of sorts) and the winner was Hassan Rouhani, the incumbent president. An apparently mild-mannered cleric with a beatific smile, he has presided over Iran for four years — a period of egregious human rights violations, the Iranian-backed slaughter in Syria, the taking of American and other hostages, and increasing support for terrorists abroad. Nevertheless, you’ll see him described in much of the media as a “moderate.”
At most he is a pragmatist, one with a keen sense of how credulous Western diplomats and journalists can be. He knows they won’t judge him based on such quotes as this: “Saying ‘Death to America!’ is easy. We need to express ‘Death to America!’ with action.”
In Iran, the president is not the most powerful figure. That distinction belongs to an unelected “supreme leader.” It is to the supreme leader that all government bodies report — including the 12-member Guardian Council, which approves presidential candidates. This time around, more than 99 percent of those who hoped to run were disqualified because they did not hold politically/religiously correct positions. Women also were excluded.
Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran has had two supreme leaders. The first was Ruhollah Khomeini, a charismatic cleric with the fiery mien of a biblical prophet. The Carter administration and the mainstream media initially mistook him for a moderate as well. Anyone who had bothered to read what he had been writing since the 1940s would have been aware that he regarded himself as a jihadi and believed that Islam should “conquer the whole world.”
After Ayatollah Khomeini’s death in 1989, Ali Khamenei, who had been president, was appointed supreme leader by the Assembly of Experts, an entity whose members also are selected by the Guardian Council. Based on this it should be clear: Iran’s elections are not open, not free and not fair — even when they are not blatantly rigged as they were in 2009.
The New York Times has called Iran’s form of government “undemocratic democracy.” That’s amusingly oxymoronic but not at all precise. I would call it a theocratic dictatorship cleverly marketed to provide the illusion of representative governance. It may be helpful to compare it to the Soviet system in which the Communist Party decided which candidates could run and what elected officials could do. In Iran, substitute mullahs for commissars.
Mr. Rouhani’s main rival in this election was Ebrahim Raisi, who doesn’t pretend to be anything but the hardest of hard-liners. So should those of us concerned by the strategic threat Iran represents feel relieved about the election’s outcome?
On the contrary: As my colleague, former CIA Iran specialist Reuel Marc Gerecht has pointed out, a win by Mr. Raisi would have been the better result because it would have made it more difficult for Western leaders “to deceive themselves about Iran’s intentions.” It also would have increased “the distance between the Iranian people and their overlords.”
Journalists and diplomats who make the case for Mr. Rouhani’s moderation usually point out that he is eager for improved economic relations with the West. That’s true but his goal, transparently, is to strengthen Iran’s economy, a necessary precondition for building a more powerful military. It’s not just coincidence that the budget of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and missile development program has risen 24 percent this year.
Might a wealthier Iran become complacent? Might it lose its zeal to fight and sacrifice in order to spread its Islamic Revolution? That was what President Obama hoped and what Ayatollah Khamenei fears. To Mr. Rouhani, I suspect, it’s a manageable risk.
During his first term as president, Mr. Rouhani’s most significant achievement was concluding the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). He and his silver-tongued foreign minister, Javad Zarif, persuaded President Obama to lift sanctions and turn over billions of dollars. Iran’s economy — which had contracted by 6.8 percent in 2013 and 2 percent in 2015 — last year grew by an estimated 6.4 percent. In exchange, Mr. Rouhani promised to delay Iran’s nuclear weapons program — a program whose existence he denies.
What’s next on his to-do list? My guess is that he’ll attempt to widen divisions between the United States and the European Union, attract foreign investment and end non-nuclear sanctions — sanctions imposed for the regime’s support of terrorism, violations of human rights and continuing ballistic missile programs.
That last task may prove challenging: After renewing a temporary waiver on U.S. sanctions against Iran’s crude-oil exports, the Trump administration last week slapped several new non-nuclear sanctions on Iran, adding to a list of more than 40 imposed this year.
David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, and my colleague Mark Dubowitz call this the “waive-and-slap approach” — essentially a holding pattern as President Trump’s advisers attempt to work out a comprehensive and coherent Iran policy, one not predicated on the belief that Iran’s rulers can be appeased.
Mr. Trump’s top national security advisers are acutely aware that the ambition of those rulers is to build a new Persian/Islamic empire. Already, Iran controls Lebanon through Hezbollah, its loyal proxy, powerfully influences the Iraqi government, supports Houthi rebels in Yemen and has dispatched its own forces, as well as those of Hezbollah, to defend Bashar Assad, its loyal and lethal client, in Syria. Iran and Hezbollah are increasingly penetrating Latin America as well.
On Saturday, around the same time that Mr. Rouhani’s victory was announced, President Trump arrived in Saudi Arabia, where the threat posed by such neo-imperialist ambitions was the top item on the agenda. That, too, was not just coincidence.
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.
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