Commentary Magazine


Topic: Hassan Rowhani

Iran President: a Terrorist, Not a Moderate

The chattering classes have been working overtime this week to sell Americans on the idea that Hassan Rowhani—the winner of the Iranian sham election for president—is not only a moderate but also the harbinger of a chance for a diplomatic solution to the nuclear standoff between the Islamist government and the West. Even if one were to accept the idea that the moderate in a field of candidates hand picked by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei is actually a person worthy of the label, the notion that this post brings with it the power to either liberalize Iran or to end its nuclear program is simply false. But, as a report from our former COMMENTARY colleague Alana Goodman in the Washington Free Beacon points out, there’s more proof that Rowhani is up to his neck in the nefarious actions of the regime. It turns out that, as we’ve previously noted, Rowhani was not only an acolyte of Ayatollah Khomenei but deeply involved in the international terrorist wing of Iran’s Islamist movement. As Goodman writes:

Iranian President-elect Hassan Rowhani was on the special Iranian government committee that plotted the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, according to an indictment by the Argentine government prosecutor investigating the case.

The attack on the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) is one of the worst terrorist attacks in recent history with 85 killed and hundreds more wounded. After a lengthy investigation, the evidence uncovered by Argentine authorities pointed directly at the Hezbollah terrorist group and its Iranian masters who made the decision to launch the attack on the Jewish target at a meeting of a committee of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council in August 1993. Khamenei was the head of the group, but one of its members was none other than the person that we are supposed to think is about to change Iran against the supreme leader’s wishes: Hassan Rowhani.

Though Iran’s apologists are unhappy about this revelation, there is no serious effort being made to claim that Rowhani is not guilty or that his role in the crime is being exaggerated. But some of those who have been advocating for the United States to embark upon a new round of dead-end diplomacy because of Rowhani’s rise are bound to argue that the evidence of his past should be ignored or treat it as irrelevant to the question of whether we should consider his election an opportunity for another round of engagement with Iran. That would be a colossal mistake. Understanding Rowhani’s background is crucial to the question of whether he is willing to move Iran back from the nuclear brink and what it tells us should put an end to any hope that he is anything like a moderate.

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The chattering classes have been working overtime this week to sell Americans on the idea that Hassan Rowhani—the winner of the Iranian sham election for president—is not only a moderate but also the harbinger of a chance for a diplomatic solution to the nuclear standoff between the Islamist government and the West. Even if one were to accept the idea that the moderate in a field of candidates hand picked by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei is actually a person worthy of the label, the notion that this post brings with it the power to either liberalize Iran or to end its nuclear program is simply false. But, as a report from our former COMMENTARY colleague Alana Goodman in the Washington Free Beacon points out, there’s more proof that Rowhani is up to his neck in the nefarious actions of the regime. It turns out that, as we’ve previously noted, Rowhani was not only an acolyte of Ayatollah Khomenei but deeply involved in the international terrorist wing of Iran’s Islamist movement. As Goodman writes:

Iranian President-elect Hassan Rowhani was on the special Iranian government committee that plotted the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, according to an indictment by the Argentine government prosecutor investigating the case.

The attack on the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) is one of the worst terrorist attacks in recent history with 85 killed and hundreds more wounded. After a lengthy investigation, the evidence uncovered by Argentine authorities pointed directly at the Hezbollah terrorist group and its Iranian masters who made the decision to launch the attack on the Jewish target at a meeting of a committee of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council in August 1993. Khamenei was the head of the group, but one of its members was none other than the person that we are supposed to think is about to change Iran against the supreme leader’s wishes: Hassan Rowhani.

Though Iran’s apologists are unhappy about this revelation, there is no serious effort being made to claim that Rowhani is not guilty or that his role in the crime is being exaggerated. But some of those who have been advocating for the United States to embark upon a new round of dead-end diplomacy because of Rowhani’s rise are bound to argue that the evidence of his past should be ignored or treat it as irrelevant to the question of whether we should consider his election an opportunity for another round of engagement with Iran. That would be a colossal mistake. Understanding Rowhani’s background is crucial to the question of whether he is willing to move Iran back from the nuclear brink and what it tells us should put an end to any hope that he is anything like a moderate.

We will be told that Rowhani’s participation in mass murder should not blind us to the fact that sometimes people change and that former terrorists can become responsible leaders. But such examples (which are rare and often misinterpreted) are generally the product of a genuine change of heart and an ideological shift. And there is no evidence that Rowhani has undergone either.

It should be remembered that Rowhani was an original and fervent supporter of the tyrannical Islamist regime. He has served it well over the decades, including a stint as Iran’s nuclear negotiator during which he bought the country’s nuclear program precious time to get closer to a bomb while pretending to be a reasonable interlocutor.

Rather than an independent force seeking to push the government to liberalize its theocratic control of virtually every aspect of Iranian life or to change its foreign policy, Rowhani has been part of its power structure from the start. This means that in addition to his part in keeping the country an Islamist tyranny, he’s also been part of its effort to commit terrorism in the Middle East and throughout the world. Operating with its Hezbollah auxiliaries, the long reach of Iran’s terror network has killed domestic opponents and Jews in Europe and South America, with the AMIA bombing and the attack on Israel’s Buenos Aires in 1992 being two of the bloodiest.

The mention of Rowhani in the AMIA indictment not only gives the lie to his pose as a moderate, it brands him as a criminal deserving of being tracked down and punished like the many al-Qaeda operatives that have been either captured or killed by American forces.

We doubt Rowhani will ever be brought to justice but the presence of his name on the indictment ought to complicate matters should he decide to follow in the footsteps of his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and visit the next meeting of the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York. Rather than being embraced by an Obama administration that is desperate to avoid a confrontation over keeping the president’s promises to stop Iran, Rowhani must be treated as an international pariah who would be subjected to prosecution should he ever set foot on Western soil.

The AMIA bombing may have been forgotten by much of the Western press and foreign policy establishment that is eager to revive the cause of containing a nuclear Iran rather than preventing it from ever gaining a weapon. But an American government that still treats the battle against international terrorism as one of its priorities cannot afford to sweep this piece of intelligence under the rug. Rather than reach out to Rowhani, the United States must shun him as a murderer.

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Rowhani Takes a Leaf from the PA Playbook

Ever since Hassan Rowhani’s election as Iran’s new president last Friday, many Westerners have been enthusing over the prospects of a negotiated solution to Tehran’s nuclear program. But these enthusiasts should take a long, hard look at what Rowhani actually said at his very first press conference: Asked whether direct talks with Washington were possible, he replied, “First of all, the Americans have to say… that they will never interfere in Iran’s internal affairs. Second, they have to recognize all of the Iranian nation’s due rights including nuclear rights. And third, they have to put aside oppressive… policies towards Iran.”

In other words, the U.S. must first promise to let the nuclear program proceed unhindered, lift all sanctions and recognize the mullahs’ regime as legitimate. Only then, once there’s nothing left to talk about because America has already capitulated fully to Iran’s demands, can negotiations begin.

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Ever since Hassan Rowhani’s election as Iran’s new president last Friday, many Westerners have been enthusing over the prospects of a negotiated solution to Tehran’s nuclear program. But these enthusiasts should take a long, hard look at what Rowhani actually said at his very first press conference: Asked whether direct talks with Washington were possible, he replied, “First of all, the Americans have to say… that they will never interfere in Iran’s internal affairs. Second, they have to recognize all of the Iranian nation’s due rights including nuclear rights. And third, they have to put aside oppressive… policies towards Iran.”

In other words, the U.S. must first promise to let the nuclear program proceed unhindered, lift all sanctions and recognize the mullahs’ regime as legitimate. Only then, once there’s nothing left to talk about because America has already capitulated fully to Iran’s demands, can negotiations begin.

If this sounds familiar, it should: It’s the exact same tactic Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has been using to evade negotiations with Israel for four years now. As his Fatah party’s central committee reiterated for the umpteenth time yesterday, the PA won’t agree to talks unless Israel first freezes all settlement construction (by which the PA means even huge Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem that everyone knows would remain Israeli under any deal), accepts the 1967 lines (including in Jerusalem) as the basis for the final border and releases Palestinian terrorists from Israeli jails. In other words, it will agree to negotiate only after there’s nothing left to talk about, since Israel has already capitulated fully to its demands on several key final-status issues: borders, Jerusalem, settlements and prisoners.

As Alan Baker, a former legal advisor to Israel’s Foreign Ministry, explained in detail on Tuesday, these preconditions are completely groundless.

“Nowhere in the history of the peace process negotiations is there any commitment to the ‘1967 borders’,” he wrote. “The opposite is in fact the case. All the agreements between Israel and the PLO, as well as the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, base themselves in their preambular paragraphs on the call by the international community, in UN Security Council resolution 242 of 1967, for ‘secure and recognized boundaries.’”

And though Baker didn’t mention it, not only doesn’t that resolution demand a withdrawal to the 1967 lines, but it was explicitly worded to allow Israel to retain some of the territory it captured in 1967.

Baker also noted that “Israel has never, in any of its agreements with the Palestinians, undertaken to freeze settlement activity in territory it continues to administer pursuant to the agreements with the Palestinians.” Indeed, he wrote, the Oslo Accords explicitly permitted Israel to keep building in the part of the West Bank known as Area C, and designated the settlements as “one of the agreed-upon final-status negotiation issues, together with borders, refugees, water, Jerusalem and security.”

While Baker doesn’t address the prisoner issue, that, too, is a classic final-status one. In Northern Ireland, for instance–a precedent Westerners love to cite–the prisoners were freed only after the Good Friday Agreement was signed, not before negotiations even began.

Thus the PA’s insistence that Israel agree on all these final-status issues before talks even start effectively ensures that the talks never will start–and that is equally true of Rowhani’s preconditions.

But Rowhani has assuredly noticed that this tactic has worked beautifully for the Palestinians: Much of the world continues to insist that the absence of talks is Israel’s fault, for not accepting the PA’s preconditions. So who can blame him for hoping it will work equally well for Iran?

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Rowhani’s Win Is a Victory for the Regime

Despite widespread disagreement about how Hassan Rowhani’s election as president affects the chances of a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear program, just about everyone appears to agree on one thing: The victory of a “relative moderate” came as a complete and unwelcome surprise to Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. I’d been wondering whether anyone was ever going to challenge this blatantly irrational consensus, but finally, someone has. “I interpret his election in one way only: The regime wanted him to win,” said Dr. Soli Shahvar, head of Haifa University’s Ezri Center for Iran and Gulf Studies, in an interview with the Tower.

Shahvar pointed out that not only was Rowhani handpicked by the regime to be one of only eight candidates, while hundreds of others were disqualified, but the candidate list was blatantly tilted to ensure that he would place first: It pitted a single “moderate” against five conservatives (two candidates dropped out before the vote), thereby ensuring that the conservative vote would fragment. “If they had wanted one of the conservatives to win, they would have gotten four of the five conservatives to drop out of the race,” Shahvar said.

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Despite widespread disagreement about how Hassan Rowhani’s election as president affects the chances of a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear program, just about everyone appears to agree on one thing: The victory of a “relative moderate” came as a complete and unwelcome surprise to Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. I’d been wondering whether anyone was ever going to challenge this blatantly irrational consensus, but finally, someone has. “I interpret his election in one way only: The regime wanted him to win,” said Dr. Soli Shahvar, head of Haifa University’s Ezri Center for Iran and Gulf Studies, in an interview with the Tower.

Shahvar pointed out that not only was Rowhani handpicked by the regime to be one of only eight candidates, while hundreds of others were disqualified, but the candidate list was blatantly tilted to ensure that he would place first: It pitted a single “moderate” against five conservatives (two candidates dropped out before the vote), thereby ensuring that the conservative vote would fragment. “If they had wanted one of the conservatives to win, they would have gotten four of the five conservatives to drop out of the race,” Shahvar said.

Indeed, though Shahvar didn’t mention it, that’s precisely what happened on the “moderate” side. Initially, there were two “moderates,” but former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami persuaded one, Mohammad Reza Aref, to withdraw so as not to split the moderate vote. It beggars belief that Khamenei couldn’t have engineered something similar on the conservative side had he so desired.

It’s also worth noting that throughout the campaign, Khamenei carefully avoided giving any hint as to which candidate he preferred. The widespread assumption that he preferred a conservative is unsupported by any evidence.

But the most convincing argument, to my mind, is one Shahvar didn’t make: the final vote tally. According to the official results, Rowhani clinched the contest in the first round by winning 50.7 percent of the vote. But for a regime widely suspected of committing massive electoral fraud to ensure Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection in 2009, it would have been child’s play to alter the vote count by the tiny fraction necessary to put Rowhani under 50 percent and force a second round. Moreover, it would have been perfectly safe, because none of the pre-election commentary foresaw Rowhani coming anywhere near victory. Thus had his tally been announced at, say, 49 percent instead, there would have been no suspicions of fraud; rather, everyone would have been amazed at his strong showing. And then, with conservatives pooling their forces behind a single candidate in the run-off, a narrow loss for Rowhani would have been equally unsuspicious.

It’s not hard to figure out why Khamenei would have wanted Rowhani to win: He desperately needed someone who could ease the international sanctions and stave off the threat of a military strike without actually conceding anything on the nuclear program. And Rowhani’s performance as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator in 2003-05 proved his skill in this regard. Indeed, he boasted of it: “While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the [nuclear conversion] facility in Isfahan,” Rowhani said in 2004. “By creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work there.”

In the aftermath of Rowhani’s victory, American and European officials are already talking enthusiastically about a new round of negotiations, while Israeli analysts say the election has almost certainly delayed any possibility of military action against Iran’s nuclear program until 2014. Thus Khamenei has gotten exactly what he wanted. The only question is why all the “experts” are still portraying this as a defeat for the regime.

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Obama Playing by Rowhani’s Timetable

The problem with the willingness of so many in the West to buy into the myth that Hassan Rowhani’s election in Iran provides a meaningful opening for nuclear diplomacy isn’t so much the possibility that the U.S. will be suckered into a terrible agreement with Tehran. The Iranians have proved time and again—including during the time when it was Rowhani being the chief deceiver—that they are never going to sign any deal that will place meaningful restrictions on their ability to enrich uranium. There is even less chance that the ayatollahs will allow the West to impose a solution that will “end” Iran’s nuclear program as the president pledged to do during the foreign policy debate with Mitt Romney last fall. No matter how many concessions the United States and its European allies offer Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the answer is always going to be no to any accord.

The real problem with the idiocy being promoted by purveyors of conventional foreign policy wisdom this week is that the infatuation with Rowhani will mean the United States will play the next year of Iran policy according to Tehran’s timetable.

That’s the main advantage that Khamenei has gained by allowing a seeming opponent to assume an office that has no real power over Iran’s nuclear program, its intervention in Syria or its support for international terrorism. If President Obama is serious about waiting, as he hinted at on Charlie Rose’s show last night, to see if Rowhani’s win will portend change, that means Iran may have obtained at least another year to develop a weapon before the Americans are ready to think about doing anything to redeem the president’s pledge to stop Iran.

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The problem with the willingness of so many in the West to buy into the myth that Hassan Rowhani’s election in Iran provides a meaningful opening for nuclear diplomacy isn’t so much the possibility that the U.S. will be suckered into a terrible agreement with Tehran. The Iranians have proved time and again—including during the time when it was Rowhani being the chief deceiver—that they are never going to sign any deal that will place meaningful restrictions on their ability to enrich uranium. There is even less chance that the ayatollahs will allow the West to impose a solution that will “end” Iran’s nuclear program as the president pledged to do during the foreign policy debate with Mitt Romney last fall. No matter how many concessions the United States and its European allies offer Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the answer is always going to be no to any accord.

The real problem with the idiocy being promoted by purveyors of conventional foreign policy wisdom this week is that the infatuation with Rowhani will mean the United States will play the next year of Iran policy according to Tehran’s timetable.

That’s the main advantage that Khamenei has gained by allowing a seeming opponent to assume an office that has no real power over Iran’s nuclear program, its intervention in Syria or its support for international terrorism. If President Obama is serious about waiting, as he hinted at on Charlie Rose’s show last night, to see if Rowhani’s win will portend change, that means Iran may have obtained at least another year to develop a weapon before the Americans are ready to think about doing anything to redeem the president’s pledge to stop Iran.

Last September, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu tried to wake up Obama and the rest of the world by drawing a red line across a cartoon bomb at the United Nations General Assembly to remind them of the costs of waiting until Iran had enough fuel to build a weapon. The international press mocked him, but he did put the issue on Obama’s agenda and the U.S. pledged not to let Iran run out the clock until the red line was truly crossed. That created a speeded-up timetable for American action that though amorphous in nature still made it clear that Iran’s time to make a bomb was rapidly running out. That was especially true once the latest P5+1 talks collapsed earlier this year despite the West’s offer of a new batch of concessions to Iran.

But with Rowhani, we now have a brand new timetable for Iran diplomacy that has to encourage Tehran’s embattled nuclear scientists that they have more time to keep their centrifuges spinning away than even they thought possible.

As a New York Times editorial published today helpfully points out, the first new excuse for delay is the need to wait until August when Rowhani is sworn into his new office. The Times piece, which sets new records in ingenuous belief in Rowhani’s powers, is doing nothing more than stating the new reality when it notes this means that the primary task of American diplomacy in the coming months will be to “persuade Congressional leaders and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel that it is necessary and possible to reach a credible deal with Iran.”

In other words, all efforts to ratchet up the sanctions on Iran to completely shut down their economy are now on the back burner while Obama waits for Rowhani to magically transform Iran’s policies. As for the use of force, that is, as Amos Harel writes in today’s Haaretz, completely off the table for another year at least, as Rowhani will be given leeway to prevaricate, tease and ultimately disappoint his chorus of American fans.

Given the already large stockpile of refined uranium in Iran’s possession and the nuclear test data it may still be receiving from its North Korean friends (who have already illustrated what happens when the U.S. gives diplomacy unlimited time to work when negotiating with tyrants bent on acquiring nukes), another year doesn’t just mean there is no red line for the West on Tehran’s quest. It may provide Iran with enough time to present Obama or his successor with a fait accompli that will mean it is too late to use force, let alone diplomacy or sanctions, to stop their nuclear quest.

The Rowhani timetable is a blueprint for an Iranian bomb. If the president truly wishes to keep his promises on the nuclear question, he must reject the idea that America must, as the Times seems to be indicating, start again from scratch in a diplomatic process that will end as all other attempts to talk the Iranians out of their nuclear goal have ended.

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Rowhani and the Path to Containment

New Iranian President Hassan Rowhani is already proving the truth of my assertion that allowing his election was the smartest thing his country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has done in a long time. Speaking for the first time since winning in a landslide last Friday, Rowhani presented a far more reasonable face to the world than his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Islamist cleric that had the distinction of being the most “moderate” of the regime supporters that Khamenei allowed to run said he wanted to reduce tensions with the United States. Though he reiterated that he would never budge from defending Iran’s “right” to continue to enrich uranium that the world rightly fears will be used to make bombs, this half-hearted olive branch is probably all he thinks he needs to do to string the West along for another round of negotiations that will do nothing but buy more time for Iran to achieve its nuclear ambition.

The bad news is that he’s probably right about that.

The willingness of White House chief of staff Dennis McDonough to embrace Rowhani’s election as “a potentially hopeful sign” was a signal that President Obama is ready to head down the garden path with the Iranians again despite the fact that every previous such effort has ended in a failure that only advanced the ayatollahs toward their nuclear goal. As our Max Boot noted earlier today, the “myth of the moderate mullah” dies hard in Washington. But the problem here probably goes a lot deeper than the nonsense being spouted on cable news shows about the nonexistent chances that Rowhani represents the start of a chance to transform Iran from an Islamist tyranny to something less awful. Given the fact that everyone knows that real power resides in the hands of the supreme leader, the desire to pump meaning into his election may be more about the desire of the president and those elements of the foreign policy establishment that are keen to avoid having to face up to the truth about the Iranian nuclear peril than any belief in Rowhani’s moderation.

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New Iranian President Hassan Rowhani is already proving the truth of my assertion that allowing his election was the smartest thing his country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has done in a long time. Speaking for the first time since winning in a landslide last Friday, Rowhani presented a far more reasonable face to the world than his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Islamist cleric that had the distinction of being the most “moderate” of the regime supporters that Khamenei allowed to run said he wanted to reduce tensions with the United States. Though he reiterated that he would never budge from defending Iran’s “right” to continue to enrich uranium that the world rightly fears will be used to make bombs, this half-hearted olive branch is probably all he thinks he needs to do to string the West along for another round of negotiations that will do nothing but buy more time for Iran to achieve its nuclear ambition.

The bad news is that he’s probably right about that.

The willingness of White House chief of staff Dennis McDonough to embrace Rowhani’s election as “a potentially hopeful sign” was a signal that President Obama is ready to head down the garden path with the Iranians again despite the fact that every previous such effort has ended in a failure that only advanced the ayatollahs toward their nuclear goal. As our Max Boot noted earlier today, the “myth of the moderate mullah” dies hard in Washington. But the problem here probably goes a lot deeper than the nonsense being spouted on cable news shows about the nonexistent chances that Rowhani represents the start of a chance to transform Iran from an Islamist tyranny to something less awful. Given the fact that everyone knows that real power resides in the hands of the supreme leader, the desire to pump meaning into his election may be more about the desire of the president and those elements of the foreign policy establishment that are keen to avoid having to face up to the truth about the Iranian nuclear peril than any belief in Rowhani’s moderation.

As the New York Times notes today:

Many of the leading strategists on Iran from Mr. Obama’s first term have become increasingly critical of the president’s handling of the issue this year. Early optimism that Iranian negotiators were ready to discuss the outlines of a deal — one that would have frozen the most immediately worrisome elements of the country’s nuclear program in return for an acknowledgment of the country’s right to enrich uranium under a highly obtrusive inspection regimen — faded in April, when the talks collapsed.

But Mr. Obama chose, after some internal debate, not to allow the breakdown in talks to become a crisis, partly because he was immersed in the debate over American intervention in the Syrian civil war. “There were a lot of distractions,” said one former senior official who remains involved in the internal debates.

The implication of the outcome of this internal White House debate is deeply troubling and ought to chasten those of the president’s defenders who continue to insist that Obama will in the end do the right thing and stop Iran from going nuclear even if that means using force. The point is, if everyone in the administration already knows that what happened last Friday was, as Jeffrey Goldberg (one of those who have vouched for Obama’s policy on Iran as aimed at stopping their nuclear program) called it, a “fake election in a fake democracy,” then the willingness of his new foreign policy team to treat Rowhani’s victory as an excuse for more diplomacy stems more from a desire to avoid making a choice about taking action than it does about any actual confidence that more talks will succeed.

It should be conceded that there has never been anything wrong with the president’s rhetoric about stopping Iran. He has been consistent on that point since he was first running for president in 2008. Having wasted much of his first term on a feckless policy of engagement with an Iranian regime that wanted no part of such outreach and the rest of it on assembling a shaky international coalition on behalf of sanctions and failed diplomacy, the president has left himself very little wriggle room. His own experience, let alone that of his predecessors, shows that any further talks will only serve Iran’s interests in that they will help run out the clock until their bomb is finished. Rowhani has bragged about playing this game with representatives of the Europeans and the George W. Bush administration. If the president is to embrace Rowhani’s minimalist olive branch as an excuse for more diplomacy it can only mean that Obama is seizing any excuse to put off the inevitable moment of truth about whether he will keep his word on Iran.

The only question about Obama’s openness to using Rowhani as a pretext for more talks is whether they will treat it as the final opportunity for Iran to stand down or as the starting point of an administration walk-back on the nuclear issue that will end with a policy of containment. True believers in Obama will, no doubt, claim it is the former, but everything we’ve seen in the last four and a half years makes it hard to believe it is anything but the latter.

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The Myth of the Moderate Mullahs

The West’s capacity for self-delusion when it comes to Iran never ceases to amaze me. Witness the ecstatic reaction to supposed centrist Hassan Rohani’s election in a rigged election. According to The Wall Street Journal: “The Obama administration and its European allies—surprised and encouraged by Hassan Rohani’s election as Iran’s next president—intend to aggressively push to resume negotiations with Tehran on its nuclear program by August to test his new government’s positions.”

Really? Seriously? Is this on the level? Do leaders in Washington and other Western capitals still believe in the myth of “moderate mullahs” who will make a deal on Iran’s nuclear program if only we reach out to them? This flies in the face of decades of evidence that the Iranians have no intention of giving up their cherished nuclear ambitions whose realization they see (perhaps rightly, if the example of North Korea is anything to go by) as the ultimate guarantor of their revolution.

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The West’s capacity for self-delusion when it comes to Iran never ceases to amaze me. Witness the ecstatic reaction to supposed centrist Hassan Rohani’s election in a rigged election. According to The Wall Street Journal: “The Obama administration and its European allies—surprised and encouraged by Hassan Rohani’s election as Iran’s next president—intend to aggressively push to resume negotiations with Tehran on its nuclear program by August to test his new government’s positions.”

Really? Seriously? Is this on the level? Do leaders in Washington and other Western capitals still believe in the myth of “moderate mullahs” who will make a deal on Iran’s nuclear program if only we reach out to them? This flies in the face of decades of evidence that the Iranians have no intention of giving up their cherished nuclear ambitions whose realization they see (perhaps rightly, if the example of North Korea is anything to go by) as the ultimate guarantor of their revolution.

It also flies in the face of all the evidence that the real decision-maker in Iran is not the figurehead president but the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has held power since 1989. That is a long enough period that he should have dispelled any naive hopes that he is a closet reformer who has any ambition other than maintaining repression at home and expanding Iranian influence abroad at the expense of the U.S. and our moderate allies in the region.

For that matter, even if Rohani had any real power there is scant reason to think he would reach any deal with the West unless it allows Iran a tactical advantage. As Sohrab Ahmari reminds us in the Wall Street Journal: “For 16 years starting in 1989, Mr. Rohani served as secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council. During his tenure on the council, Mr. Rohani led the crackdown on a 1999 student uprising and helped the regime evade Western scrutiny of its nuclear-weapons program.”

Numerous other accounts note that when Rohani was Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005, he oversaw a temporary pause in enrichment activities–but he later bragged that this had relieved pressure on Iran and allowed it to make critical advances in its nuclear program.

There is scant cause to think that Rohani’s election now will change Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons–except to make it easier by dragging the West into further fruitless negotiations that will buy time for the mullahs to produce an atomic bomb.

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Election of “Moderate” Helps Iran’s Tyrant

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.

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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.

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