Iranians aren’t wrong to celebrate the presidential victory of Hassan Rouhani. It is a (small) thumb in the eye of the country’s clerical ruler, Ali Khamenei. Leaving aside foreign affairs and the nuclear issue for a moment, everyone should take some joy from controlled elections that still deliver surprises. The Islamic Revolution put into permanent tension two irreconcilable forces: theocracy and democracy. Although the regime has rigged balloting before, it doesn’t like to do so. It wants to believe that Iranians will vote the way “good Muslims” should, which is the way the supreme leader wants them to.
Rouhani was for years the all-purpose factotum—the inside fixer—for Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, former majordomo of the political clergy and right-hand man of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic’s founder. Without Rafsanjani, Khamenei would never have succeeded Khomeini. Since the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the presidency in 2005, Rafsanjani has been in a very difficult relationship with Khamenei, who allowed Ahmadinejad, a man with a real bugaboo about corrupt mullahs, to torment relentlessly the great political maestro. The volcanic disputed presidential election of 2009, when the pro-democracy Green Movement rose up and was beaten down, left Rafsanjani prostrate before the supreme leader.
Rafsanjani isn’t a beloved national figure. Ahmadinejad cleaned his clock in the 2005 presidential contest. But in the Islamic Republic, where small political differences are the engines of hope, a vote for the former servant of my enemy’s enemy was the best ballot an angry Iranian could cast in 2013. Rouhani was the only candidate whose triumph could’ve been construed as an expression of disapproval of the supreme leader’s increasingly tyrannical reign.
During the campaign, Rouhani called for the release of the former leaders of the Green Movement, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi, both under house arrest. He vaguely wrapped himself in the sensibilities and civility of their cause—without endorsing their main demand, free elections. Even folks who supported Khamenei in the brutal crackdown in 2009 have bemoaned how nasty politics has become. Founding fathers of the revolution and their families are no longer safe from the regime’s thugs.
The Islamic Republic has always had three sets of rules for the citizenry: one for the elite, one for the common faithful, and one for dissidents. It’s not surprising that Rouhani by the end of the campaign sounded and looked like Mohammed Khatami, the mild-mannered, always-smiling, reformist cleric who won an earlier surprise victory against the conservative clerical establishment in 1997 and ushered in a brief period of reform and greater civility before Khamenei and his allies crushed the movement.
But the “Rouhani euphoria,” in Tehran and in the West, won’t last long. The election of Khatami introduced real reflection and tumult into the Islamic Republic’s political establishment, in great part because Khatami’s critiques of the revolution, theocracy, the United States, and even the Islamic faith were serious. Khatami may have been a bit of a Caspar Milquetoast personally, but he gathered around him and spearheaded, sometimes unintentionally, a movement of individuals who were serious about changing the system. In a year’s time President Khatami will probably look audacious and true of heart compared with Rouhani.
Remember: Rouhani was allowed to run because—unlike his former patron, who took a stand against Ahmadinejad in 2009—he remained pretty quiet, only occasionally making bleats in favor of “consensus.” The probable truth: Rouhani allied himself with Khamenei four years ago, if not earlier, seeing clearly the collapsing and unreliable power network of his mentor. In the 1990s, when Rafsanjani’s and Khamenei’s allies started to duel, the white-turbaned hope for “pragmatism” proved himself a fickle and increasingly feeble patron. Rouhani, who has intimately watched the great power struggles inside the republic since the death of Khomeini, is no fool. Khamenei kept him on the national security council after Ahmadinejad dumped him in all likelihood because he knew where Rouhani’s real allegiances lay.
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.
Which, by the way, it hasn’t. With the nuclear negotiations under Rouhani’s successor, the one-legged, religiously zealous, and incorruptible Saeed Jalili (who probably was Khamenei’s preferred presidential candidate), the Islamic Republic has advanced substantially. Given its ever-growing number of increasingly efficient centrifuges and the soon-to-be-operational plutonium-separation facility at Arak, Tehran could be within 18 months of having a two-week nuclear breakout capacity. Soon, its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium will be irrelevant as a stepping stone to weaponization: Iran’s massive low-enriched uranium stockpile, which Rouhani has emphatically said is nonnegotiable, will be all that’s required to dash to a uranium-triggered bomb.
That is an impressive achievement for a theocracy that not long ago had a hellacious time just building centrifuges. Sanctions cause real pain for some, especially in the lower and middle classes; but Khamenei, like his predecessor, never stops reminding the faithful that the Islamic Republic isn’t about economics.
As Rouhani’s promise evaporates over the next few months, President Obama will stare at what he’s staring at now: a choice between preemptively bombing the Islamic Republic’s nuclear sites and allowing the supreme leader and his guards, who oversee both the nuclear program and terrorist operations abroad, the capacity to build an atomic weapon at any time of their choosing. The president has acknowledged the oncoming breakout capacity for the regime; he’s also pledged to stop it. As former CIA and NSA director Michael Hayden has remarked, however, it’s hard to imagine James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, ever walking into the Oval Office and announcing that today is the day when the “red line” has been irretrievably crossed. Intelligence officers don’t do that.
For the president to avoid this stark choice he needs Rouhani and Khamenei to play ball, to accept what was on the table at nuclear negotiations in Kazakhstan in the spring. Khamenei flatly refused that offer: “I’m not a diplomat; I’m a revolutionary,” he answered. Obama could up the ante: offer a really big bag of candy to the Iranian regime—all the stuff that “realists” believe motivates men—in exchange for a verifiable cessation of Iran’s uranium enrichment, openness about efforts at weaponization and the manufacture of centrifuges, a curtailment of centrifuge production, and the implementation of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Additional Protocol, which would allow U.N. inspectors access to any civilian or military site in the Islamic Republic without advance notice.
Or the president could take a different tack. He could act on what the Iranian presidential contest clearly revealed: Sanctions are an issue inside the Islamic Republic. They haven’t stopped the nuclear program, but they have brought sufficient pain for the elite to debate their damage openly. Obama loves competitive sports, where weakness is always exploited. He should apply that wisdom elsewhere: Go to the French, British, and Germans and push hard for an embargo of the Islamic Republic. It’s doubtful the United States can implement the economy-crunching quarantine that the British brought against the oil-nationalizing Iranian prime minister Muhammad Mosaddeq in 1951. That embargo helped make Mosaddeq an unpopular prime minister by 1953, when Iranians—not Americans and Brits—removed him.
But it’s worth a try. It’s also certainly worth doing what the Americans did in 2003: Scare the mullahs. After Saddam Hussein went down, the Iranian regime, according to the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, stopped experimenting with nuclear triggers and warhead designs. In 2004, Khamenei accepted, even if briefly, Rouhani’s suspension of uranium enrichment. Update the fear: Obama could declare that he intends to attack Iran by air and by sea but that Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards have the power to stop him. He could go to Congress and ask for authorization to strike. And he could tell his senior commanders to stop saying publicly that they neither foresee nor need to plan for another land war in Asia.
For Obama to do that he would need to have what Rouhani has in spades: real experience in power politics. So we wait. Most probably the president will do what he’s most experienced at doing overseas—nothing.
Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.