It’s not clear why much of the Western media continues to describe Iran’s newly elected president as a “moderate.” After all, Hassan Rouhani is a regime pillar: As an early follower of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Rouhani joined him in exile in Paris, and over the last 34 years, the 64-year-old Qom-educated cleric has held key positions in the regime’s political echelons, and served in top military jobs during Iran’s decade-long war with Iraq. As Iran’s chief interlocutor with the West on the regime’s nuclear portfolio, Rouhani boasted of deceiving his negotiating partners. Domestically, he has threatened to crush protestors “mercilessly and monumentally,” and likely participated in the campaign of assassinations of the regime’s Iranian enemies at home and abroad, especially in Europe. Currently, Rouhani serves as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s representative on the supreme national security council.
Aside from the fact that Iran’s English-language television station Press TV calls him a moderate, what exactly, in the eyes of the West, makes him one? After all, former president Muhammad Khatami labeled his public diplomacy campaign a “dialogue of civilizations,” which played right into Western ideas of tolerance and moderation. But Rouhani has nothing similar in his past.
“I think he gets that label because he has been Rafsanjani's factotum,” says former CIA officer Reuel Marc Gerecht. Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, another regime pillar and former president of Iran, is typically referred to as a “pragmatist” in the Western press. “Compared to Khamenei's circle, these fellows seem moderate,” says Gerecht. “Rouhani ran their little think tank around which foreign-policy types, the types that Westerners meet, gathered. Also, Rouhani was party to the only temporary ‘freeze’ in Iran's nuke program. Some folks—most notably the EU's Javier Solana—made a lot out of this. They should not have.”
In reality, all Rouhani did was play the U.S. and EU off each other. “From the outset,” Rouhani said in 2006, “the Americans kept telling the Europeans, ‘The Iranians are lying and deceiving you and they have not told you everything.’ The Europeans used to respond, ‘We trust them.’ … When we were negotiating with the Europeans in Tehran we were still installing some of the equipment at the Isfahan site. There was plenty of work to be done to complete the site and finish the work there. In reality, by creating a tame situation, we could finish Isfahan.”
Accordingly, a number of analysts wonder if Rouhani’s election is meant to serve the same purpose now in buying more time for the Iranian nuclear weapons program. With the regime putting a friendly, “moderate” face in front, the West is likely to double down on its efforts to reach the long sought after diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear issue.
As if on cue, the White House responded enthusiastically to Rouhani’s victory and announced that it is prepared, again, to enter direct negotiations. “There’s a great opportunity for Iran,” said White House chief of staff Denis McDonough, “and the people of that storied country, to have the kind of future that they would, I think, justifiably want.”