“Let us not delude ourselves. The international community must not become caught up in wishful thinking and be tempted to relax the pressure on Iran to stop its nuclear program,” Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet in response to Hassan Rouhani’s clear-cut victory in Iran’s presidential elections.
Netanyahu’s fears are, unfortunately, well founded. There is nothing the West loves more than another round of appeasement and deluding itself that the wolf has magically turned into a sheep.
Rouhani, on Monday, already spoke what appeared to be conciliatory words. He promised “greater transparency” in Iran’s nuclear program that would “make clear for the whole world that the steps of the Islamic Republic of Iran are completely within international frameworks.” He said Iran would engage in “constructive interaction with the world through moderation.”
The Wall Street Journal had already reported that “the Obama administration and its European allies” were “surprised and encouraged” by Rouhani’s win and “intend to aggressively push to resume negotiations with Tehran on its nuclear program by August to test his new government’s positions….”
These eager plans come just as Israeli intelligence minister Yuval Steinitz has been warning that Iran is now “very close” to the nuclear finish line and that its nuclear industry is already “many times larger than that of either North Korea or Pakistan.”
But should Rouhani be given a chance? Is it just possible that, as the Wall Street Journal report describes Washington and Brussels as hoping, his “unexpected victory could pressure [Iranian Supreme Leader] Khamenei into softening his position on the nuclear issue or scaling back Tehran’s broader rift with the West”?
Not according to more sober, knowledgeable voices.
On Monday the Wall Street Journal’s Sohrab Ahmari gave some important background on Rouhani that has been missing from Western media’s laudatory accounts of his “moderation.”
Ahmari notes that Rouhani “spent Iran’s revolutionary days as a close companion of the Ayatollah Khomeini.” Later, as secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Council, Rouhani led an effort to—as he himself put it—“crush mercilessly and monumentally” the 1999 student uprising.
Ahmari quotes a victim of that crackdown who recalls how, after Rouhani’s statement, security forces “poured into the dorm rooms and murdered students right in front of our eyes.”
During this year’s election campaign Rouhani also boasted of how, as Iran’s nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005, his wily approach achieved great gains for Iran’s nuclear program (for details see this account by an Israeli expert). And Rouhani gave his view of the Syrian crisis just last January, saying: “Syria has constantly been on the front line of fighting Zionism and this resistance must not be weakened.”
Indeed, Dr. Soli Shahvar, head of the Ezri Center for Iran and Gulf Studies at Haifa University, told The Tower that in his view Khamenei’s regime actually wanted Rouhani to win. Shahvar’s analysis is worth quoting at length:
If [the regime] had wanted one of the conservatives to win, they would have gotten four of the five conservatives to drop out of the race, paving the way for [eventual runner-up, Tehran Mayor Mohammad-Bagher] Ghalibaf to win. But they didn’t do that. Moreover, it was the regime that approved the candidacy of Rouhani alongside only seven others. This is striking evidence that Khamenei wanted Rouhani to win, both internally and externally.
…Victory for a candidate who is perceived as more moderate yet still has the confidence of Khamenei, serves the regime in the best way. Externally, Iran today is in a very difficult situation with regard to sanctions and its international standing. A conservative president would only have increased Tehran’s isolation in the world. A victory for someone from the “moderate stream,” however, will immediately bring certain countries in the international community to call for “giving a chance to dialogue with the Iranian moderates.” They will ask for more time in order to encourage this stream, and it will take pressure off the regime. And so we see that in the non-disqualification of Rouhani and especially in the non-dropping-out of four of the five conservative candidates there is more than just an indication that this is the result the regime desired.
Or as a former head of the Mossad station in Tehran and prime ministerial adviser put it more pithily: “We will miss the Ahmadinejad era. He spoke like Hitler and the world knew him.”
Israel’s leaders will, of course, try very hard to clarify Tehran’s game of deception to top Western officials. Their work will be cut out for them.
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