Say what you will about Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He may lead a totalitarian theocracy that squelches freedom and threatens the region with its nuclear program and spews anti-Western and anti-Semitic filth at the world. But he is not incapable of learning a simple lesson about international politics. Four years ago, he stood back and allowed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to steal the country’s presidential election thus consigning Iran to four more years of being represented to the world by a vulgar buffoon. The violent suppression of protesters in Tehran worsened Iran’s already terrible reputation and Ahmadinejad’s role as the regime’s most visible figure made it easier to rally international support for sanctions against Iran to force it to drop its nuclear ambitions. But this time around, Khamenei wasn’t going to make the same mistake. Rather than taking action to ensure the election of a candidate more closely identified with him, he allowed a cleric who is a strong supporter of the Islamist government but not one of his personal followers to breeze to an easy victory in Friday’s election. It’s the smartest thing he’s done in years.
Hassan Rowhani is the new president of Iran, but though the vote is seen as a setback for Khamenei, the supreme leader is actually the big winner. Having seen how Ahmadinejad’s antics and open expression of hatred made it easier to sell Western governments on the necessity of taking the Iranian threat seriously, Khamenei is right to think Rowhani’s victory will be interpreted by many in the Western foreign policy establishment as a chance to see if Iran is taking a step back from the nuclear precipice. But as with past “moderates” who won the presidency, Rowhani may be the new face of the regime but it won’t change a thing about who runs Iran, its support for Bashar Assad and Hezbollah terrorism, or its drive for nuclear weapons. The alleged moderate—whose views on those issues don’t deviate a whit from those of Khamenei anyway—won’t have any influence on those matters.
Rowhani’s election will make it more complicated for those who want to press Iran harder to give up its nuclear program and strengthen the voices of those useful idiots in the West (like the editorial board of the New York Times) who will argue that Rowhani’s election is a good reason to devote another year or two or three to dead-end diplomatic efforts that will do nothing but give Iran more time to achieve its nuclear goal.
Ahmadinejad has been the most visible Iranian on the international stage since the death of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the implacable cleric who led the revolution that drove out the shah and plunged the country into the long nightmare of Islamic rule. Though something of a populist in terms of Iranian politics, his willingness to openly express hatred for Jews and denial of the Holocaust made it easy for those in the West who are not normally interested in foreign affairs to understand the nature of the Islamist regime and why it posed a threat to the rest of the world. But as president of Iran the last eight years Ahmadinejad had no say in Tehran’s drive for nuclear weapons or its negotiating strategy with the West. In Iran’s system the supreme leader has the real power while the elected president and his government are responsible for picking up the garbage and running the bureaucracy. As Walter Russell Mead writes in his always insightful American Interest blog, the Iranian system gives the people a way to blow off steam about the government without diminishing the rule of the ayatollahs. Letting Ahmadinejad steal an extra four years as president deprived the Iranian people of that limited solace and Khamenei won’t make that mistake again. Rowhani, who was a devoted supporter of Khomeini, is no reformist. But while he will bear the burden of the Iranian people’s resentment for their desperate economic plight, he won’t be able to do anything to take the sort of action that might end the country’s isolation.
Nor is there any reason to believe that he will be a force for a change in nuclear policy inside Tehran’s councils. As the New York Times noted last month, Rowhani fiercely defended his reputation against attacks that he had undermined Iran’s nuclear program during his past service as a nuclear negotiator with the West. If anything, memory of his role in the talks between Iran and the West during the George W. Bush administration should chasten those who expect that Rowhani’s triumph will be an opportunity for a breakthrough in the nuclear talks. As a diplomat, Rowhani followed the same pattern as every other nuclear negotiator for the Islamist regime by looking to drag out talks while playing with the gullibility of those Westerners who are desperate to achieve some sort of agreement. This allowed Iran to buy more time for its nuclear program to get closer to its goal.
Replacing Ahmadinejad with Rowhani will make it easier for those who want to live with a nuclear Iran to argue against tightening sanctions as well as to oppose the eventual use of force. But as repellent as Ahmadinejad was, he was never the real problem about Iran. Should President Obama be persuaded to waste more time on an already failed policy that relies on sanctions and diplomacy to force Iran to drop its nuclear dream, he will be playing right into Khamenei’s hands.