Why You Shouldn't Get Too Excited About Rouhani

The new president is technically a "moderate," but in Iran, that doesn't mean much.
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A supporter of Hassan Rouhani holds up his poster at a celebration gathering in Tehran on June 15, 2013. (AP)

Good riddance: The end of the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad era should be welcomed by all who want to see a free and democratic Iran and a peaceful resolution to the ongoing nuclear crisis with Tehran. But the election victory of Hassan Rouhani as Iran's new president has revived a myth as old as that of the revolutionary theocracy, itself: The myth of moderation.

The White House cautiously expressed hope that the regime now will "make responsible choices that create a better future for all Iranians," and declared its readiness to "engage the Iranian government in order to reach a diplomatic solution" to "the international community's concerns about Iran's nuclear program." The press and the pundits were less cautious in their enthusiasm, describing Rouhani as a "moderate," a "centrist," and a "reformist," whose tenure as nuclear negotiator demonstrated a "more cooperative" Islamic Republic.

It is understandable to hope that Rouhani's victory might usher in more freedom for Iran's brutalized people. Indeed, those who genuinely care about Iranian human rights abuses should be testing Rouhani's moderation by insisting that he free all Iranian political prisoners, including 2009 presidential candidates Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, who have been under house arrest for over two years without trial.

But, the euphoria for Rouhani ignores his history. Rouhani is a supreme loyalist, and a true believer, who lived in Paris in exile with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and followed him to Iran. He was a political commissar in the regular military, where he purged some of Iran's finest officers, and a member of the Supreme Defense Council responsible for the continuation of the Iran-Iraq War, at a great cost in Iranian lives, even after all Iranian territories were liberated. He rose to become both Secretary of Iran's powerful Supreme National Council in 1989, and Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, under former Iranian presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and his successor Mohammad Khatami.

More recently, on the nuclear issue, Rouhani's campaign statements are nothing to celebrate, either.

The Democracy Report

Rouhani's record as Iran's lead negotiator with the EU3 -- Britain, France and Germany -- demonstrates more deception than moderation. If Ahmadinejad, and Iran's most recent nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, were infamous for their bluntness, Rouhani has masterfully wielded temperate rhetoric to mask an iron determination to expand Iran's nuclear program.

In 2004, Rouhani described Iranian nuclear policy as a twin strategy of "confidence-building and...build[ing] up our technical capability," with the goal of "cooperating with Europe" in order to divide Europe from the United States. Rouhani's deputy at the Supreme National Security Council, Seyed Hossein Mousavian, described this as the "widen the transatlantic gap" strategy. In the third presidential debate of the most recent election, in a discussion on Iran's nuclear program, Rouhani bragged that Iran was able to "import foreign technology from abroad," and stressed that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei guided his nuclear diplomacy.

In 2008, former Khatami administration spokesman Abdollah Ramezanzadeh described Rouhani's nuclear strategy during a panel debate covered by the Fars News Agency: "During the confidence-building era we entered the nuclear club, and despite the suspension [of uranium enrichment], we imported all the materials needed for our nuclear activities of the country...The solution is to prove to the entire world that we want the power plants for electricity. Afterwards we can proceed with other activities..."

Ramezanzadeh further elaborated on Iran's strategy: "As long as we were not subjected to sanctions, and during our negotiations we could import technology, we should have negotiated for so long, and benefited from the atmosphere of negotiations to the extent that we could import all the technology needed. The adversary wanted the negotiations to come to a dead end and initiate a new phase. But we wanted to continue negotiations until the U.S. would be gone from the circle of negotiations."

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Mark Dubowitz is executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where he leads the foundation’s Iran projects on sanctions, human rights, and nonproliferation.

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