America's Endless Search for a 'Moderate' Iranian President

Clinging to mirages.

rouAmerican administrations have been obsessed with dividing the Middle East into “moderates” and “hard-liners.” It has never served the U.S. policymakers well, particularly as it is applied to Iran’s Islamic Republic. American administrations are not alone in viewing Iran through such a prism. Other Western governments and particularly the major Western media did so as well.

Yet time and again, the so called “moderate” Iranian presidents proved to be smooth-tongued fellows outwardly, while inside Iran they permitted murders, assassinations, and imprisonment of regime opponents. At the same time, they have sanctioned international terrorism.

Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was elected president of Iran in 1989. In his “inaugural” address he promised the Iranian people “renewal” following the bloody 8-year war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the death of the Supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini. The Iranian economy, then as now, was close to ruin and Rafsanjani’s soothing words spurred a great deal of enthusiasm in America and the West.

Rafsanjani assured the German government in July 1992 (Germany’s was Iran’s major European trading partner) that the assassination of Iranian dissidents “belonged to a bygone era.” Two months later, just such an assassination occurred at the Mykonos restaurant in Berlin, where the three highest ranking members of Iran’s Democratic Party of Kurdistan, along with other opposition leaders, were gunned down.

The Spanish philosopher George Santayana admonished that history tends to repeat itself. President Rouhani’s election in June 2013, just like the election in June, 1997 of President Mohammad Khatami, was influenced by the impact of Western sanctions on Iran. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, approved a candidate that could “soften” the West to end the sanctions against Iran. And like Rouhani, Khatami was hailed as a “moderate” who also smiled pleasantly to Western cameras. Khatami’s gimmick was the “dialogue of civilizations,” which greatly impressed the liberal Clinton administration. The Clinton administration was eager for dialogue with Khatami’s Iran. Some sanctions were lifted, and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright extended an official apology to Iran for the 1953 CIA-engineered coup that deposed Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq.

While Western policymakers were gushing over Khatami, brutal assaults on dissidents and opposition leaders took place in Iran. A dozen leading writers and political leaders were murdered between 1997 and 1999, but that did not end the love affair between the U.S. administration and the “moderate” President Khatami. Similar to Rouhani avoiding Obama in the UN corridors in 2013, Khatami avoided crossing paths with Clinton at the UNGA summit in 2000. Also, in 2002, during Khatami’s presidency, dissidents belonging to the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) exposed Iran’s secret uranium enrichment facilities at Natanz and the heavy water facility in Arak.

According to a CIA memo, Khatami “probably joins other Iranian leaders who maintain that support to Hezbollah is an essential aspect of Tehran's effort to promote itself as leader of the Muslim world and champion of the oppressed.”

President Barack Obama, who disavowed George W. Bush’s designation of Iran as part of the “Axis of Evil,” tried hard to find accommodation with the Islamic Republic of Iran. In 2009, soon after his inauguration, he offered direct talks but was spurned and ridiculed by the Supreme Leader and his minions, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Now, however, in 2013, Iran’s economy is on the brink of disaster. Iranian oil exports dropped from 2.4 million barrels a day (bpd) to about 800,000, costing the regime $70 billion, and robbing it of its main revenue source. 40% of young Iranians are unemployed and the real figure is probably higher. Inflation, too, is at 40%, but most likely higher.

Given the economic realities in Iran, it is no wonder that the regime has sponsored a so-called “moderate” such as Rouhani, to launch a “charm offensive” aimed at the West. He is tasked with breaking the Western sanction regime. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his UN General Assembly speech, revealed the true nature and aims of the Iranian regime and warned the international community to beware of Iran’s ploy.

Addressing the UN General Assembly on October 1, 2013, Prime Minister Netanyahu declared, “Now since [the Iranian Revolution of 1979), presidents of Iran have come and gone. Some presidents were considered moderates, others, hard-liners. But they have all served that same unforgiving creed, that same unforgiving regime, that creed that is espoused and enforced by the real power in Iran, the dictator known as the supreme leader, first Ayatollah Khomeini, and now Ayatollah Khamenei.”

Netanyahu made the case to the international community and in the White House, to President Obama, not to be persuaded by the new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s “charm offensive.” At his UN speech Netanyahu added, “President Rouhani, like the presidents who came before him, is a loyal servant of the regime. He was one of six candidates the regime permitted to run for office. See, nearly 700 other candidates were rejected. So what made him acceptable? Well, Rouhani headed Iran’s Supreme national Security Council from 1989 through 2003. During that time Iran’s henchmen gunned down opposition leaders in a Berlin restaurant. They murdered 85 people at the Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires [1994]. They killed 19 American soldiers by blowing up the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia [1996].”

Calling Rouhani a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” Netanyahu asked rhetorically whether anyone can believe that Rouhani, the national security adviser of Iran, knew nothing of these attacks. Rouhani was, moreover, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator between 2003 and 2005. As such, he masterminded the strategy that enabled Iran to advance its nuclear weapons program behind “a smokescreen of diplomatic engagement and very soothing rhetoric.”

In fact, during his recent election campaign for the presidency, Rouhani reminded Iranians, and in particular the “Ahmadinejad faction” of the ruling class, that during his term as National Security adviser, he raised Iran’s nuclear centrifuges from 300 to 1,500. According to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (September 6, 2013 report) “Iran continues to enrich uranium and increase the number of centrifuges installed, including around 18,000 of the IR-1 type centrifuge and 1,000 of the more efficient IR-2m type.”

In the final analysis, there is no substantive difference between former presidents of Iran Ahmadinejad and Rouhani. There are only stylistic changes. Both Ahamdinejad and Rouhani have sought to maintain and bolster the Islamic revolutionary regime, which has sponsored worldwide terrorism and abused human rights inside Iran. The economic hardship experienced by ordinary Iranians is putting pressure on the regime to bring relief to the nation, without much compromise on the nuclear program. Iran’s main goal is regime survival. The primary policy of the regime is to become the hegemon in the Middle East region and beyond. The nuclear option would provide it with the means to do so.

American policymakers must stop equating Western realities with that of Iran. The U.S. administrations and the media have wrongly used such terms as “liberal” or “moderate” and contrasted it with “conservative” or "hard-liner.” These are deceptive characterizations is applied to the Middle East in general and to Iran in particular. Rouhani is no less of a “hard-liner” than Ahmadinejad when it comes to the regime’s survival and its nuclear program. He is poised to advance Iran’s policy goals as previous presidents have done. Rather than look at the Iranian power-play as between “hard-liners” and “moderates,” Westerners should understand the inner workings of Iran’s political elites as mafia-like families warring over economic and political interests.

Freedom Center pamphlets now available on Kindle: Click here.