A number of observers, including The New York Times, have exulted that the recent presidential elections produced a “moderate” winner, Hassan Rouhani. They suggest this could signify a new era in Iranian policy.
Perhaps, but then again, perhaps not.
When it comes to Iran, it would be wishful thinking to allow hope to substitute for experience.
Let’s bear in mind three salient facts.
First, to become a presidential candidate, Rouhani had to pass muster ideologically with Supreme Leader Ali Hosseini Khamenei and his entourage. Of scores of would-be candidates, only six made it to the ballot. That ought to say something about who Rouhani really is. If his positions deviated all that much from those of the regime, he would have been barred from running.
Indeed, it may have been precisely his more “moderate” exterior, compared to his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, that proved so appealing to the powers-that-be. After all, Ahmadinejad’s antics made it especially difficult even for those most inclined to rationalize, or appease, Iranian behavior to do so persuasively.
Second, in the Iranian system, the president has limited powers. Khamenei is in full charge. Thus, Rouhani’s ability to introduce change, even assuming he would want to, is severely circumscribed. Consider the limited impact of the last “moderate” Iranian president, Mohammad Khatami, who served from 1997 to 2005.
And third, Rouhani has been an integral part of the post-1979 Iranian system, not a rebellious outsider.
As one telling example, he is reported to have been present at a fateful 1993 meeting of the Iranian Supreme National Security Council—he was its secretary at the time—when the decision was made to bomb the AMIA building in central Buenos Aires. That meeting has been documented by the relentless Argentine prosecutor in the case, Alberto Nisman. The actual attack was carried out in July 1994. Eighty-five people were killed and hundreds wounded in one of the deadliest assaults in Latin America in decades.
Looking ahead, if Rouhani really wishes to help steer Iran in a different, more peaceful direction, here are four places to start.
• It is high time to put an end to Iranian support for international terrorism. Jihadist groups like Hezbollah, which operate in Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East, would be seriously weakened without Iranian weaponry, training, and funding. And nearly 20 years after the AMIA bombing in Argentina, Iran should come clean about its own complicity in the attack and hand over those officials, including the current minister of defense, who are the objects of Interpol red notices and are sought by Argentine authorities.
• Iran continues to prop up the murderous Assad regime in Syria. More than 90,000 people have been killed in a civil war now in its third year. Iran is a central player. Will Rouhani steer Iran away from continued involvement in crimes against humanity?
• Iran is a notorious violator of human rights. Not only are its presidential elections perverted versions of democracy, as only approved candidates can participate, but respected human rights watchdog agencies have cataloged a litany of violations of fundamental liberties. Try being a Baha’i in Iran today, or a feminist leader, or a gay activist, or a student protester, or a crusading journalist. And Iran uses capital punishment indiscriminately, including, as has been documented, against children.
• And if Rouhani seeks better relations with the world, then Iran must end its long-standing pursuit of nuclear-weapons capability, as the United Nations Security Council and International Atomic Energy Agency have repeatedly demanded. For years, Iran has managed to run circles around European and American negotiators seeking a deal on its nuclear program, all the while buying time to develop the program further. Rouhani himself was part of that process, at one point boasting about his ability to outmaneuver his Western diplomatic interlocutors. Has he changed? If so, here is a good place to begin.
The history of the last century painfully demonstrates the seemingly infinite capacity of some Western policy-makers and security experts to deceive themselves, with devastating results. The stakes with Iran could not be higher. Concrete deeds must be the measure of any change in the country’s behavior. Anything less might end up as the dangerous pursuit of an illusion.
David Harris is Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee. This article was originally published by El Pais.