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.
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.
Now there remain only a few big unknowns: Does Rouhani believe that delaying a breakout makes more economic and strategic sense than moving ahead rapidly toward a nuclear capacity? A one-week breakout window would make Iran a de facto nuclear power. (A much longer window would actually suffice since the odds of an American or Israeli strike against the nuclear sites are shrinking quickly.) Would the French, who have staunchly opposed Tehran but are also practical, hold firm to sanctions once they saw that the Islamic Republic was within seven days of a bomb and the United States had shown no desire to preempt? Without the French, the sanctions regime in Europe would unravel, and with it any U.S. hope of depriving Tehran of sufficient funds to happily muddle on, the economic standard for every Iranian leader since Khomeini. Would Rouhani decide that delaying the breakout date to 2015 or 2016 was worth whatever sanctions relief Tehran could acquire now, so long as the nuclear quest that he and Khamenei have worked so hard to achieve wasn’t compromised? If so, do Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards agree?
Without a credible American threat to go to war if Khamenei fails to dismantle—not just delay—his nuclear program, the upcoming negotiations are unlikely to end well. They could become, as we have already seen elsewhere in the Middle East, just farce.
Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.