During student council elections at the Phoenix Hebrew Academy more than 40 years ago, a young boy named Andy was running for president. While his “political opponents” made the usual campaign promises of more recess and less homework, Andy vowed to deliver a brand new school building, which just happened to be in the final stages of completion. Of course, he had nothing to do with the building going up and no ability to deliver on his promise, but his dramatic campaign pledge set him apart from the pack and got him elected.
Andy’s story comes to mind in the wake of Friday’s presidential election in Tehran. Even if the winner, Hassan Rowhani, is more moderate than the candidates he defeated, his promises mean nothing, since the one who runs the country and decides whether or not to continue pursuing nuclear weapons is Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Moreover, while Rowhani may be more civilized than his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — not a great accomplishment — and had the courage during his campaign to talk about human rights, opening dialogue with the United States and putting concern for Iran’s economy on par with its pursuit of nuclear weapons, there is nothing to indicate that he has any genuine desire to change course, even if he could.
In his first press conference after being elected he ruled out any possibility of halting Iran’s nuclear program and said there would be no change in his country’s support of Syria, which is just one of many oppressive regimes in the region that Iran nourishes with funds and weapons.
And though he presents well to the West — being fluent in English, French and German and abstaining from Ahmadinejad’s anti-Semitic rants on the Holocaust and threats to wipe Israel off the map — there’s no question that he is a staunch believer in the Islamic Revolution that threatens the West.
Rowhani was a member of the inner circle that launched the revolution in 1979. He lived in exile in Paris with its leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and joined him on his triumphant return to Tehran after the Shah’s downfall. It’s no surprise, therefore, that one of his first acts after being elected was to pay homage at the grave of Khomeini.
He was a senior commander in the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, which saw half a million people killed and the use of chemical weapons, including mustard gas. In 1988 he was appointed deputy commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces.
A cleric, Rowhani was elected in 2000 to the Assembly of Experts, the religious body that elects the ayatollah. It stands to reason that he is as devoted to the current “supreme leader,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as he was to Khomeini; otherwise he wouldn’t have been allowed to run for office.
And while he has made encouraging statements about opening a dialogue with the United States and putting Iran’s economic condition on par with its nuclear ambitions, that doesn’t mean he’s willing to give up on nuclear weapons.
As a veteran nuclear negotiator, he has a wealth of experience in duping his Western interlocutors into thinking that Iran was making concessions. In 2004, for instance, he bragged that he had kept the West talking while Iran imported advanced materials to further its program. “We will go ahead with confidence-building and will endeavor to build up our [nuclear] technical capability,” Rowhani reportedly told a press conference. “This is our diplomacy: to proceed [in] both directions simultaneously.”
In recent years, Rowhani, who has a doctorate in philosophy from Glasgow’s Caledonian University, has headed a number of think tanks. His academic writings include the following quote, taken from a 2009 monogram, that reveal his thoughts on the need to press on with the Islamic Revolution:
“The Islamic Revolution and its theorists, and above all, Imam Khomeini, were exemplary leaders who … defined and implemented a superb Divine Islamic model for all humans and all times.” Furthermore, he asserts, any deviation from the fundamental ideals of the revolution “would only mean to be held in the prison of Western politics.”
What all this means is that the West has to take the designation of Rowhani as a moderate with more than a grain of salt. Though it is tempting to believe that he represents a new kind of Iranian leader — especially for a world that doesn’t want to go to war to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power — he is more likely a new wrapping to an old revolution begun by his mentor, the Ayatollah Khomeini.
The good news is that the Iranian people are expressing a desire for normalcy, a willingness to give up the quest for nuclear weapons, if only to gain relief from crippling economic sanctions. This shows that the first part of the West’s plan — to pressure the people to pressure the leaders — is working. What remains to be seen is whether the needs and desires of the people will have any influence on the ayatollahs.
In the meantime, the West must proceed with caution and ease sanctions only on the basis of deeds, not declarations. It must also continue to prepare for more extreme action in the event that the sanctions fail to halt Iran’s march toward nuclear weapons.
In the final analysis, a military response is clearly a last resort. Therefore we would be only too happy to be proven wrong about Rowhani, to learn that he is indeed a moderate, despite his track record, and that, like Andy at the Phoenix Hebrew Academy, he finds a way to deliver on his promises.