Why You Shouldn't Get Too Excited About Rouhani

The new president is technically a "moderate," but in Iran, that doesn't mean much.

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.

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."

Ramezanzadeh summed it up this way: "We had one overt policy, which was one of negotiation and confidence building, and a covert policy, which was continuation of the activities...in the field of confidence building, Japan is the most advanced country in the world but Japan can produce a nuclear bomb in less than a week."

In supporting the argument for Rouhani's moderation, much is made of his role in Iran's decision to temporarily suspend uranium enrichment in 2004. But it is worth remembering that this decision was not only a diplomatic feint to head off sanctions and continue importing nuclear technology as Ramezanzadeh suggests. It was also inspired by a genuine fear that the "mad-bomber Bush" would target Tehran after quickly disposing of Saddam and the Iraqi military in 2003.

To be sure, during the election campaign, Rouhani projected moderation relative to his competitors. He ran on a "policy of reconciliation and peace," and criticized nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili and outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for reckless diplomacy that united the U.S., Europe, and the international community in support of unprecedented global sanctions to punish Iran for its uncompromising nuclear stance.

In the face of increasingly crippling sanctions, Iranians appeared to embrace the "anyone-but-Jalili" vote, if only to counter the candidate who appeared to be Khamenei's first choice. Rouhani, after all, promised that his moderate positions could bring the West around to authorize sanctions relief before the Iranian economy collapses.

Rouhani, however, is only the most moderate of the eight hardline candidates who were hand-selected by Khamenei. And even if he truly were committed to nuclear reconciliation, Rouhani, like Ahmadinejad, lacks the power to alter Iran's nuclear trajectory. As Rouhani acknowledged during the campaign, Khamenei remains in charge of Iran's nuclear policy.

Rouhani's victory may be a temporary political setback for Khamenei, who might have preferred a more politically pliant president like Jalili who would help preserve the interfactional power balance between the supreme leader, the clerics, the Revolutionary Guards, and the bazaaris (middle-class merchants).

But on the question of Iran's nuclear policy, the election might be a godsend for the supreme leader, who can now offer up a more soft-spoken, cosmopolitan, and diplomatic president to convince the West to ease sanctions, even while Khamenei is unprepared to relinquish his nuclear program.

Accordingly, Khamenei will likely allow Rouhani to engage with the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany (the P5+1) in another round of nuclear negotiations. If Rouhani starts sounding too conciliatory, Khamenei will blame his new president for selling out Iran's interests. But he also could allow Rouhani to rope-a-dope the P5+1 by offering a deal to minimize Iran's stockpile of 20 percent-enriched uranium.

Such an offer, if presented by Rouhani as a step toward "reconciliation and peace," may be enough to tie up the West for sufficient time to undermine international support for sanctions, get Iranian oil flowing again, stabilize the economy, and even help Rouhani deliver on his election promises. But an offer that only limits Iran's 20 percent-enriched uranium stockpile, without other more rigorous nuclear safeguards, would not be sufficient to arrest Iran's nuclear weapons development.

Iran's new president knows this and he will negotiate to "widen the P5+1 gap" on these nuclear demands. He will remain focused on an objective that he, Khamenei, Rafsanjani, Khatami, Ahmadinejad, and the Revolutionary Guards have been committed to for years: Playing for time in order to reach an industrial-size nuclear weapons capacity and a nuclear breakout which will allow Iran, without detection, to produce enough weapons-grade uranium or separated plutonium for one or more bombs.

In other words, the election of Rouhani, a loyalist of Iran's supreme leader and a master of nuclear deceit, doesn't get us any closer to stopping Iran's nuclear drive.