Since winning election in 2013, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani has been accorded sympathetic treatment in the foreign press. That his moderation was largely a fictional construct didn’t matter. All that mattered was that Iran had replaced a cartoonlike villain—Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—with someone who could be called a moderate. That was bad enough when it came to whitewashing the regime he fronted before the nuclear talks began. However, Rouhani’s fake identity is crucial to the effort to sell the West on the need to appease Iran by signing a deal that would fail to prevent it from becoming a threshold nuclear power. The key to Iran’s success in the talks is for the U.S. to fall for Rouhani’s pose as the good cop resisting the evil influence of the “bad cop” hardliners.
Rouhani was the least extreme of the set of loyal Islamists who were allowed to run for president but his victory served the purposes of the country’s radical rulers. His pose of moderation has always been more about the need to sell the world a narrative about Iran being on the cusp of change. It didn’t matter that the election that he won was hardly democratic or that he has no real power, which remains firmly in the hands of the country’s Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Nor did anyone care that Rouhani has a long record as a faithful servant of the radical Islamist regime, including a stint at diplomacy after which he boasted of his ability to deceive the West on the nuclear issue. Indeed, the secret talks conducted by the Obama administration that led to the interim nuclear deal signed last November preceded Rouhani’s victory.
Rouhani’s election hasn’t moderated Iran’s behavior either at home or abroad. The country remains a brutal tyranny that punishes dissent, either political or religious, without mercy and spews anti-Semitic hate. It has not ceased to support terrorism abroad and has used its Hezbollah auxiliaries as well as the regime’s own forces to help ally Bashar Assad defend his reign of terror in Syria by slaughtering opponents. And it has continued to defy the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors who want to find out what’s going in its nuclear military research sites.
It is true that there are competing factions within Iran and some of them would like to see Rouhani and his friends fall. That has allowed credulous foreign journalists to buy into the narrative about the moderate Rouhani championing accommodation with the West while the hardliners seek to shut down the nuclear talks. This leads to articles like the one published in today’s New York Times that centers on Rouhani’s pledges to resist his opponents and fight for a nuclear deal that would end sanctions on Iran. Some within the regime are so distrustful of the West that even the sham of a détente with the United States is unacceptable to them.
But the problem with this narrative is that the two sides have the same goal: a nuclear Iran and a U.S. retreat from the region allowing the regime to exercise hegemony in a way that would destabilize and endanger U.S. allies.
Appeasing Iran sufficiently in order to allow Rouhani to tell his opponents that he had bested the U.S. would give President Obama an agreement that he could attempt to portray as a badly needed foreign-policy triumph. But what the president and his foreign-policy team miss in their zeal for a deal is that lifting sanctions and making Rouhani a hero in Iran won’t make that nation less murderous either at home or abroad. Iran’s failing economy and plunging oil prices give the president an opportunity to press the regime to make real concessions on the nuclear issue that would truly end the threat. But rather than risk a confrontation that would force it to give up their nuclear infrastructure, the president, with his press cheering section aiding his cause, seems more worried about helping Rouhani.
The good Iranian cop may have his differences with the bad ones that are closer in many ways to Khamenei. But the U.S. ought to be indifferent as to which Islamist faction rules in Tehran. Rouhani won’t bring freedom to Iran or give up its deadly foreign ambitions to undermine moderate Arab governments and to destroy Israel. Rather than worrying about his factional fights, U.S. negotiators should not be fooled by this transparent charade. But so long as Rouhani can count on Obama and friendly outlets like the Times to make his case for him, the chances that any deal reached will actually prevent Iran from eventually getting a bomb seem small.