The foreign policy establishment found a new hero. No, it’s not Secretary of State John Kerry. Kerry is being backed by most of the talking heads even as he charts a course for disaster in the Middle East. But as much as people like Aaron David Miller and Fareed Zakaria are working hard to vouch for what even they acknowledge to be a fool’s errand, the secretary is nowhere near as popular in the press these days as Hassan Rouhani, the president-elect of Iran. Evidence of this was seen yesterday in the New York Times when it published a front-page puff piece in the form of its Saturday profile that any liberal American politician would sell his soul for. According to the Times, Rouhani is the sort of “can do” politician that can make things happen in Iran, utilizing his close ties with the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Rouhani comes across in the piece as so pragmatic and moderate that it makes you wonder how it is that relations with the Islamic Republic can be so strained with such people running Iran.
The reason for the enthusiasm in Washington and in the liberal press for Rouhani isn’t a puzzle. By portraying the man elected to the largely symbolic post of president of Iran as a man of peace, some hope to not merely defuse tensions between Iran and the West over the regime’s nuclear program but to revive support for diplomacy. Since it has long since been made clear that Iran regards such talks as merely a means to stall the West while it gets closer to achieving its nuclear goal, belief in more talks with Iran is a tough sell. But Rouhani is supposed to change all that and offer President Obama a plausible option for avoiding the use of force in order to make good on his promise never to allow Iran to go nuclear.
The only problem with this formulation is that the closer you look at it him, the less moderate he sounds. Indeed, as the Times profile makes clear, for all of the bouquets being thrown in Rouhani’s direction, it’s fairly obvious that his main virtue is that he is not Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
For eight years, Rouhani’s predecessor has been a convenient symbol of everything that is hateful about Iran’s government. Ahmadinejad’s open anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial transformed him into a cartoon character villain in the West who symbolized the extreme nature of the Iranian government. Though Rouhani’s election is seen as a rebuke to Khamenei, allowing the loopy-looking Ahmadinejad to be replaced with someone who is viewed as a moderate in the West is the smartest thing the supreme leader has done in years. As bizarre as Ahmadinejad’s rants were, he was merely the public face of a government run largely by others that embodied the same ideology he espoused.
But even the proofs offered of Rouhani’s moderation and pragmatism undermine the narrative that he offers a way out for Obama. The lead of the profile cites Rouhani’s ability to use his access to Khamenei in order to gain approval for a tentative deal that would have ended Iran’s enrichment of uranium. That was quite a feat, but as the article points out later, the achievement was meaningless. The Iranians soon reneged on their agreement in what many in Tehran admitted was part of a strategy to entice the West into talks that would help them run out the clock on their nuclear program. Agreeing to the terms that Rouhani accepted was as much a ruse as all the other deals Western diplomats thought they had reached with Iran over the years. Though the Times refloats the self-serving analysis of European diplomats that sought to vindicate their negotiating strategy in which Rouhani is depicted as an honest interlocutor who was just “too optimistic,” he was, in fact, just the star in a clever piece of theater served up by the ayatollahs.
That Rouhani is just as much if not more of a front man for Khamenei’s regime is also obvious. He was, as the Times admits, a close follower of Ayatollah Khomeini and a supporter, not a critic or opponent, of Iran’s theocratic rule. His differences with some of the powers that be in Tehran are tactical and largely aimed at improving Iran’s image in order to better fool the West, not changing its policies.
That the truth about Rouhani has nothing much to do with his image is immaterial to those who want to allow Iran’s nuclear threat to become a reality. After eight years of scaring the West with Ahmadinejad, Iran has finally caught on to the wisdom of offering it a “good cop” who can be sold as the man to talk to in order to get a nuclear deal that will absolve Obama of his promise and remove the possibility of a U.S. attack on its nuclear facilities. Doing so could gain them as much as a year or even more if they play their cards right in the coming months during which they can get even closer to the nuclear capability that will render any talk of Western action moot. No wonder those who wish to revive the talk of containment that President Obama renounced last year have made Rouhani their man of the hour.