Iran's moderate president?


Iranian President-elect Hassan Rohani speaks with the media during a news conference in Tehran, June 17, 2013.

Article Highlights

  • Just who is Hassan Rouhani?

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  • Hassan Rouhani is no moderate or reformer, at least in the American sense of the word.

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  • Moral clarity should never be dirty words.

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Editor's Note: The following is an interview posted by National Review Online about the latest developments in Iran.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Just who is Hassan Rouhani?

MICHAEL RUBIN: The Wall Street Journal’s Sohrab Ahmari has provided the best summary of Rouhani’s rise and record:

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. Rouhani led the crackdown on a 1999 student uprising and helped the regime evade Western scrutiny of its nuclear-weapons program… As Mr. Rouhani said at a pro-regime rally in July 1999: “At dusk yesterday we received a decisive revolutionary order to crush mercilessly and monumentally any move of these opportunist elements wherever it may occur. From today our people shall witness how in the arena our law enforcement force . . . shall deal with these opportunists and riotous elements [student protestors], if they simply dare to show their faces.”

While Iranians may know him as the man behind a brutal crackdown (one I witnessed as I was in Iran at the time), most Western diplomats know him as a nuclear negotiator during the last years of the Mohammad Khatami administration. Years later, Rouhani bragged about how he deceived the West.

LOPEZ: So is he a moderate?

RUBIN: Hassan Rouhani is no moderate or reformer, at least in the American sense of the word. The hardline Guardian Council, which vets candidates in Iran, allowed less than 2 percent of registered candidates to run. Rouhani may have been the most liberal candidate on the ballot, but to call him a moderate would be like calling Attila the Hun a moderate because he reduced prison overcrowding and was, relatively speaking, to the left of Genghis Khan.

LOPEZ: Is the world in any way a safer place without Ahmadinejad in power?

RUBIN: Unchanged. Remember: In Iran, the presidency is about style, not about substance. The real question is whether the command, control, and custody of a theoretical Iranian nuclear weapon would change with Rouhani in power and the answer to that is decidedly no. Iran’s nuclear arsenal — should it develop one or many nuclear bombs – would likely be in the hands of the unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that the Supreme Leader believes is most pure. Rouhani has about as much sway over them as a secretary of agriculture has over the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

LOPEZ: What is the mood of the Iranian people?

RUBIN: Iranians are hoping for change, but most remain quietly depressed about the direction their country is heading. Expect apathy to reign supreme.

Remember the old Iranian joke from a decade ago: An Iranian woman is getting married and, as the ceremony concludes, she tells her husband, “I probably should have mentioned this before, but this is my second marriage.” The husband is dumbfounded. “What?” he shouts. “Don’t worry,” the wife says. “I’m still a virgin.” “How can that be?” her new husband asks. “Well,” she says, “My first husband was like Mohammad Khatami. He kept promising to do it, promising to do it, and promising some more. But after eight years, he didn’t touch a thing.”

LOPEZ: Who is helping the dissidents?

RUBIN: Alas, no one. There’s a noxious belief out there that any assistance delegitimizes the Iranian dissidents or makes opposition somehow inauthentic. What we learned after the fall of the Soviet Union, however, is just how important moral support can be. All the more so here, since the regime in Iran tries to tar the opposition and dissidents with the “foreign support” brush whether they receive assistance or not.

LOPEZ: Can Obama-administration policy improve?

RUBIN: Moral clarity should never be dirty words. Organized labor also has a role to play. Many labor unions understood the true reality of communist dictatorship. Why is it that they have been so unwilling to help their Iranian compatriots? After all, Iranians tend to be more moderate than their government. The more trade unions force the regime to pay back wages, improve working conditions, and fight corruption, the less money the regime has to spend on missiles and nuclear cascades. We missed a Gdansk “Solidarity” moment in Iran back in 2005. We should not miss it again.

LOPEZ:What’s the hope of the Iranian people?

RUBIN: Freedom, liberty, self-determination, a desire to practice religion without state interference, and, above all, democracy.

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About the Author



  • Michael Rubin is a former Pentagon official whose major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy. Rubin instructs senior military officers deploying to the Middle East and Afghanistan on regional politics, and teaches classes regarding Iran, terrorism, and Arab politics on board deploying U.S. aircraft carriers. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, both pre- and post-war Iraq, and spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. His newest book, Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engagement examines a half century of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups.

    Follow Michael Rubin on Twitter.

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