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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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Assessing contemporary figures on the world stage is tricky business. It takes time to properly reflect on what a man has done, and judgments based on brief acquaintance are often wrong. So it was that in May 1997, lots of Westerners and Westernized Iranians thought that the newly elected president of Iran, Mohammad Khatami, was going to transform the Islamic Republic.


Khatami certainly had his allure. He was an intellectually curious mullah whose clerical training had not bled out of him affection for his moody, lyrical, lascivious, irreverent, tender, and zealously creative countrymen. His most revealing work, Bim-e Mawj (Fear of the Wave), portrays an astonishing intellectual voyage for a revolutionary cleric. Sometimes gushingly, more often reluctantly, and at times unintentionally, he pays homage to the unrivaled intellectual and moral power of Western thought. 

Nevertheless, serious students of Iran should have known that Khatami’s reform movement was destined to be crushed. The force of Iran’s militant faith isn’t an atmospheric thing, requiring a fine-tuned barometer to measure its variations. Revolutionary Islam isn’t subtle. The most powerful revolutionaries have been determined, brave, vicious, and often loquacious. 

Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, the former major-domo of political clerics and repeatedly the savior of the Islamic Revolution during its early dark days, is a volcano of words. No mullah has reflected more openly and proudly upon Iran’s and his (the two are often inseparable) Islamic destiny. Rafsanjani—who more than any other man mentored Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani—has a hard time hiding his greatest accomplishments. He let us know in his never-ending autobiography that the Islamic Republic had blown the Americans out of Beirut in 1983 and that he, not Ayatollah Khomeini, was the driving force behind the fateful decision to keep the war against Saddam Hussein (1980-88) going after the Iranians had ejected the Iraqis from Persian soil in 1982. 

Rafsanjani gave so many speeches in the 1980s and 1990s that he has provided us with a marvelous map to an über-pragmatic revolutionary cleric’s tactical and strategic sentiments. Much more fulsomely than the Holocaust-denying former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ever could, he has shown us how upper-class clerics see Jews dominating the United States and the West. Listen to Ahmadinejad talk about Jews and one hears a devout Shiite populist, whose worldview was formed on the street and on the battlefields of the Iran-Iraq war. Listen to Rafsanjani talk about Jews, and one hears a sophisticated mullah: He’s Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer on speed. 

Western observers of Iran, like their even blinder Westernized Iranian counterparts inside the country, should have known that Rafsanjani’s critical support for Khatami did not mean that Rafsanjani envisioned a reformist spring. No one should have been surprised that Rafsanjani withdrew his support when the reform movement started questioning sacred truths and institutions of the Islamic Revolution. 

At least with Khatami, Western observers can be partially forgiven their misjudgment. Khatami did usher in a moment of national soul-searching that affected the ruling elite and its children. But with Hassan Rouhani, the commissar of Rafsanjani for over 20 years? After so much time and evidence, why in the name of Allah are so many Western journalists, academics, and think-tankers welcoming him, as they once did his patron, as a white-turbaned hope? 

It is an amusing intellectual flip that so many foreign observers appear to have blended a quirky realist take on the Iranian political system with a big splash of Khatami-era naïveté. (This marriage can be seen in Christiane Amanpour’s recent interview with Rouhani for CNN, which recalled her kind and encouraging interview with Khatami 15 years ago.) To wit: Since Rouhani isn’t Khatami, an airy-fairy intellectual, since he’s a disciple of Rafsanjani, the ultimate clerical maestro, then he will be able to manipulate the system, especially Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his Revolutionary Guards. Only a regime loyalist, so the theory goes, could convince Khamenei and his guards, who oversee the entire nuclear program, to give up the possibility of turning their enriched uranium and separated plutonium into nuclear weapons. Economics trumps the faith, at least for the likes of Rouhani and Rafsanjani, whose pragmatism must mean a compromise of Islamic ideals. 

Sounds nice, makes a Westerner think of China and its Communists-turned-crony-capitalists. Unfortunately, it makes no historical sense whatsoever. 

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