The Magazine

Meet the New Mullah

Same as the old mullah.

Jul 1, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 40 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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We will know a lot more about Rouhani’s domestic agenda when he forms a cabinet—how he brings together what the Iran scholar Ali Alfoneh has described as “competing mafias.” Once upon a time, Rafsanjani could ride herd on all of the Islamic Republic’s battling interests. Those days are gone, and Khamenei has shown that he doesn’t have the requisite skill to do such a thing. His love of the Revolutionary Guards and his own increasingly rigid religious ideology and grandiose self-conception (“the shadow of God upon Earth”) have made him a too-active participant in the Islamic Republic’s internecine quarrels and spoils. Much more than in the past, Khamenei and his minions solve their problems with brute force.

Rouhani may well try to bring some power back to the presidency. Since Khatami’s time, Khamenei has built up shadow ministries within his own office that have veto power over their official counterparts. Rouhani will certainly make the case to the supreme leader that, unlike the last two presidents, he can be trusted. What we are likely to see—in a best-case scenario—is a big tent that includes many, though not all, of the revolutionary establishment figures that Rouhani has grown up with. Others who’ve fallen away from Rafsanjani will likely be inside; and the conservative clergy, with its mixed feelings about the supreme leader’s theocratic hubris, may be there, too. 

The only ones unlikely to be included are the serious reformers. They will remain unloved and unwanted, though Rouhani may try to cut down on their harassment. If the supreme leader stops persecuting these people, he may ease up on Rafsanjani (whose children have been interrogated and briefly jailed), for whom Rouhani may have some lingering affection. 

But neither Khamenei nor Rouhani likes messiness and dissension among the elite. Rouhani was the first secretary of the national security council, joined to Rafsanjani at the hip, when his patron and Khamenei let loose the assassination teams to snuff out particularly annoying Iranian dissidents at home and abroad in the 1990s. (The regime’s leitmotiv has generally been “kill a few, scare a lot.”) He was a big fan of crushing Tehran University student demonstrators in 1999. It’s a good guess he will not press too hard for the Green Movement’s leaders’ actual release. 

And what happens internally will influence foreign affairs. Obviously the Obama administration is hopeful that the change of presidents will offer a breakthrough on the nuclear front. It may be tempted to relent on sanctions to see whether Khamenei can be induced to stop constructing a nuclear weapon. Administrations always like to believe in the efficacy of their own handiwork. The White House may think that sanctions have already been so painful to the ruling elite that Tehran is in fact ready to trade away partial control of its nuclear program to foreigners. 

It’s possible—though just barely—to imagine Rouhani convincing the supreme leader to let him reanimate the rope-a-dope, divide-the-Europeans-from-the-Americans foreign policy that he and Rafsanjani advanced successfully from 1992 to 2003. In his writings, Rouhani has confessed candidly that negotiations for him were designed to split Iran’s adversaries while advancing the nuclear program. Since 2005, when his two years as Iran’s top nuclear negotiator ended, Rouhani has spent much time defending his work, arguing that Iran’s atomic quest could have advanced with less economic damage if he had been in charge. He still defends his successful effort to convince the supreme leader to do something he didn’t want to do—temporarily suspend uranium enrichment—in 2004. 

Today, Rouhani might, just possibly, convince the supreme leader to ship out some of Iran’s 20 percent enriched uranium in return for sanctions relief. It’s doubtful. Khamenei has owned the nuclear portfolio under Ahmadinejad. He curtailed Ahmadinejad’s love affair with one-on-one discussions with the United States, which for the departing president meant that the Islamic Republic was America’s equal. Going back to divide-and-conquer would mean to the supreme leader that his preferred, in-your-face approach had failed. 

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