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The New Rouhani

Same as the old Rouhani.

Oct 7, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 05 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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Unlike Khatami, who was willing to reflect on the dark side of the Islamic Revolution, Rouhani is without reflection or confession. He was with Rafsanjani in the Combatant Clerics Association in the mid-1980s when that organization discussed whether Iran should go for a nuclear weapon. Not surprisingly at a time when the Islamic Republic was losing tens of thousands of young men a month against the Iraqis, there were no dissenting voices. All favored nukes.

He was at Rafsanjani’s side after Saddam Hussein had been defanged by the Americans in the first Gulf war, when Rafsanjani, then Iran’s president, decided to fund seriously the clandestine effort to build nuclear weapons. The United States, not Saddam’s Iraq, was now the primary concern. It was Rafsanjani, with Rouhani beside him behind the scenes, who drove nuclear research in the 1990s. The United States and other Western allies have enjoyed detailed intelligence from Iranian defectors from the nuclear program. There was never any question about the Islamic Republic’s atomic intentions. The Iranians were after a nuke, and we knew it, and they knew we knew it. 

It’s perhaps a peccadillo to point out that Rouhani has consistently lied about the nuclear program, claiming that it’s always been peaceful and observant of International Atomic Energy Agency guidelines. Rouhani headed the nuclear negotiations from 2003 to 2005, at their most challenging time. In late 2002, Iran’s clandestine nuclear program was exposed, and George W. Bush, whom Tehran feared, was massing men and weapons for an invasion of Iraq. Rouhani did what he could—very successfully in retrospect—to keep the nuclear program going without angering the West, especially the Americans. The temporary suspension of enrichment showed flexibility in the face of overwhelming military might. So did Khamenei’s decision to temporarily suspend weaponization research at the Parchin military facility. 

In truth, though the Iranians didn’t know it, there was near-zero chance that Bush would extend the war to a second member of the “axis of evil,” the Islamic Republic. As Tehran began to question American resolve because of the difficulties in Iraq, Iranian confidence rose. This manifested itself in the rapid and open progress in uranium enrichment at Natanz. Properly read, Rouhani’s nuclear memoir—he, too, thinks of posterity—is a long cri de coeur of a sophisticated revolutionary cleric against his inferiors, the men whom the supreme leader had unwisely allowed to be the public face of the nuclear program. 

Rouhani’s triumph in the recent presidential election wasn’t a victory for “moderation” and “rationality” in Iranian politics—though Rouhani has superglued those words to his forehead. It was the triumph of class, of revolutionary clerics of good taste and slightly better economics, over the hoi polloi who’d rallied to Ahmadinejad. Rouhani’s gravamen against these crude militants was that they’d allowed Europe and America to unite economically against the Islamic Republic. Retrospectively, the clandestine efforts of Rafsanjani and Rouhani, and the open divide-and-conquer strategy of Khatami and Rouhani, looked much more effective, at least in Rouhani’s eyes. Rouhani made the dubious claim that the Islamic Republic could have attained an advanced nuclear status without suffering from sanctions. 

In 2003, the Islamic Republic made a panicked but calculated decision to open up its known nuclear facilities
to IAEA inspection. The regime later lied about the buried-in-the-mountain Fordow enrichment plant and the Arak heavy-water plutonium-separation facility, but decided to allow IAEA some access there too, once these facilities were discovered. This meant that the regime’s intention to deploy thousands of centrifuges under the noses of IAEA inspectors would eventually produce enormous tension with the IAEA and the West. The regime continued to lie about its program, especially about the clandestine weaponization research that we know took place before 2003 and that probably went on there-after. This track record of mendacity was bound to fuel the sanctions drive in Washington and Paris, the two key players in erecting the economic measures against Tehran. 

The present state of play is that, if centrifuge production continues at current levels, by mid-2014 the regime will have a one-week “breakout” capacity, that is, it could take 20 percent enriched uranium and convert it to bomb-grade in seven days. What Rouhani is gambling is that Washington and Paris are unprepared to go to war. Instead, they will accept limited concessions, only delaying the Islamic Republic’s breakout date, in exchange for significant economic relief. 

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