Iran has chosen a new president, and many in the western media outlets are touting Hassan Rowhani as the “most moderate” choice that had been offered to the Iranian people in the election. They’re right about that, but it’s probably wrong to refer to him as a moderate. The primary problem is that Western journalists use this term because it is offered to them by Iranian sources. That’s not particularly meaningful in the context of international relations, though.
Rowhani exited the political sphere in Iran for the most part in 2005, primarily because of differences in philosophy with outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on diplomatic styles in dealing with the West over Iran’s nuclear program. What were those differences? Well, as far as the West is concerned, Rowhani isn’t big on saber rattling, like Ahmadinejad. While he was involved in talks with Britain on Iran’s nuclear program, he was far more diplomatic. Does that mean that he was in any way opposed to the Iranian nuclear weapons program? It’s impossible to know for sure, however it’s unlikely that he was opposed to the supreme leader Ali Khamenei. Rowhani passed the Iranian vetting procedure for presidential candidates, which essentially means that he was “acceptable” in the eyes of Khamenei. Talk of “reformists” in Iran is not exactly what Westerners consider reform. It may mean significant changes in the daily life of Iranians, but true reform in that nation, because of its power structure, would not come from an election. They would need to start another revolution, to put an end to the current Islamist regime.
So, what does this term “moderate” really mean? In the simplest terms, it means that whomever it is applied to in Iran, isn’t quite as radical as anyone else in the religious and political landscape in that country. Any differences that will be seen between the reign of Ahmadinejad and Rowhani will be on the ground in Iran. It’s true that Rowhani will be a friendlier leader to the West, but that will primarily be through diplomacy with Western nations to ease economic sanctions against Iran. It will not mean that there will be a sudden halt to the Iranian nuclear weapons program, and there is a distinct possibility that the West will be in worse circumstances on that issue alone. Rowhani already has practice at appeasing Western leaders, while blithely watching while the supreme leader continues pulling the strings that control the nuclear program there. That is something that Ahmadinejad lacked, and his hardline stance with the rest of the world is what got Iran in its current economic mess. In reality, it’s possible that Iran could have been farther along in their nuclear program now, if Rowhani hadn’t walked away, because he may have been able to smooth talk the West out of the sanctions that have slowed that program.
It is a little useful to consider the analysis of an insider, and Mehrdad Del Roshan from FARS News Agency graciously offered PolitiChicks National Director Ann-Marie Murrell a few thoughts on this election. First, he was quick to point out that Rowhani is not really a reformist – a “Quasi-Reformist” that can be considered a common point between previous Iranian presidents Mohammed Khatami and Hashemi Rafsanjani. Both Khatami and Rafsanjani supported Rowhani, so in American terms, that is at least somewhat like previous presidents of the same party endorsing the current candidate. Del Roshan also points out that while the people have chosen a cleric, in the case of Rowhani, it may also be about voting in opposition to some of the current leadership in Iran. He explains, in regard to the extremism seen in Iran over the past several years, “…[Rowhani] is [the] end of extremism. Rowhani’s presidency, namely the end of Ahmadinejadism, [is] the end of beating drums of denial [of] the Holocaust. The end of pouring gasoline in the tank of [the] sanctions car!” But, what Del Roshan pointed out about the newly elected president and the Iranian nuclear program is very important to consider, especially in light of the fact that Rowhani was deeply involved in nuclear negotiations previously. He states that there are two ways the incoming administration in Iran could resolve the nuclear problem – “Suspend enrichment, or complete building trust for the international community.” The latter should be of primary concern, because the implication is that nuclear development would continue, as the West is appeased in other ways.
One thing that people in the West need to remember is that Rowhani was in on the Islamic revolution from the beginning. He was one of the men that helped to bring the Ayatollah Khomeini to power, has held various positions of power ever since, and is a true believer in their way of life and governance. Some of the more cynical people out there would say that he’s simply better at engaging in “Taqiyya” – telling lies to protect Islam and Islamic ways. For Western purposes, calling him a “moderate” cleric could simply mean that he is a middle of the road person in Iran. That should not have ever been taken as a worldly adjective, because even a moderate in Iran can be viewed as a radical elsewhere. Iran is a radical Islamic nation, so Rowhani is just a little less radical than anyone else from there.
And that brings us to another term that the American journalists seem to have a little bit of difficulty understanding in this context. The term “conservative” in politics in general means that one is for keeping the status quo, at the very least – as is the case in Iran. It can also refer to a political ideology that is strongly aligned with the founding principles of a given government or nation. It’s properly applied to the Iranian candidates for the presidency there because all the candidates that were permitted on the ballot passed their vetting procedure. It’s practically impossible to not have conservative candidates in that country, because the whole point of their election procedures is to preserve the Islamic state. On CBS, Elizabeth Palmer compared the Iranian candidates to having a whole slate of Tea Party candidates in the U.S. She was right, but she probably doesn’t realize why she was. No doubt her intention was to insult conservatives in the U.S., by comparing the two. Tea Party candidates in the U.S. are for a return to constitutional principles of limited government in the U.S., so they are not unlike conservatives in Iran seeking to preserve their Islamist state. But, that is where the similarities end. The question is whether or not American conservatives can somehow manage to control this particular narrative, and use Palmer’s statement against liberals, and not simply because she chose to compare conservatives from two radically different political systems. It is an interesting thing to consider, but has nothing to do with the significance of Iran’s recent elections.
The point of this is that the only thing that could be changing in Iran is in perception, not substance. Rowhani remains a loyal subject to the Islamic revolution that ushered in the current regime. He is not a symbol of change in that nation for the West. The unfortunate fact is that it is very likely that Western nations will treat Rowhani with at least a little decency, momentarily forgetting the fact that the power structure in Iran doesn’t grant this man the ability to follow through with any promises when it comes to the development of nuclear weapons. They may decide that it is a good idea to ease up a little on economic sanctions, because he will be a familiar, friendly face to them, in comparison with the flamboyant and reckless Ahmadinejad. That will be the folly of forgetting that it is only a change in leadership style, because foreign policy remains in the hands of the supreme leader.
Khamenei remains the supreme leader. To place this in somewhat easier terms for Western eyes, Rowhani is to Khamenei as Queen Elizabeth II is to the Prime Minister of Great Britain. While there are still some formalities of state in Britain that must be approved by the Queen, they are just that – formalities. The Queen is a figurehead, no longer truly serving as a leader. While Rowhani won’t be just a figurehead in Iran, the presidency in general there is little more than the throne in Britain. This is being placed in very simplistic terms, and purely from the perspective of outsiders looking in. Yes, Rowhani has a great deal to do, and many powers, but they are essentially domestic. It bears repeating again, because Ahmadinejad spent a great deal of time putting on a great show for Western powers during his tenure, and that has confused matters more than a little. His bluster was just that. If he had not been speaking of what Khamenei wanted, he would have been silenced, one way or another. Now, Rowhani will not be changing any messages – he will merely be changing the way in which they are delivered. Instead of Khamenei having the loud and boisterous Ahmadinejad, he will have the smooth and diplomatic Rowhani to deal with Western powers.
That is another point that Westerners need to remember. The person that is actually in charge of foreign policy decisions for Iran doesn’t meet with foreign nations to discuss issues of diplomacy. This spring, Khamenei finally did express that he was open to talks with the U.S., but now with Rowhani coming into office, it would not be surprising to see him shift away from direct talks yet again. Moderate does not mean different from the wishes of the supreme leader. It means delivering those wishes in a softer style. What matters is the wishes are carried out, not in how that is done.
Author’s Note: Normally, I offer resources in the form of links throughout items that I write. In this case, there is far too much to digest, and more importantly, my point here was to clarify that contrary to what many in the Western media might want to make people think about the election of Hassan Rowhani, this isn’t a “game-changer” when it comes to foreign diplomacy and the Iranian nuclear program. Those portions of the Iranian nation’s power structure remain in the hands of their supreme leader, Ali Khameini. I didn’t want to water down that message with offerings from other sources, because they are not driving that message home. However, that is not to say that they have nothing of value to offer. Following are some links that I strongly suggest you read, because I did when writing this.
Islamic Cleric Wins Iran’s Presidential ‘Election’
Moderate cleric Hasan Rowhani elected president of Iran, interior minister says
Hassan Rowhani Profile: Iran’s President-Elect And Top Nuclear Negotiator Seeks ‘Constructive Interaction’
Moderate cleric Hasan Rowhani to be Iran’s next president, says minister
Rouhani Wins Iran’s Presidential Election
Experts: Rowhani No Moderate
CBS Reporter Compares Iranian Presidential Candidates to Tea Party