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.”
The presidential election didn’t offer much insight into what the Iranian people want. With a reported turnout of 72 percent of the country’s 50 million registered voters, informed sources in Iran charge that the regime exaggerated the actual turnout by a factor of 4 or 5. This election is almost certainly as fraudulent, if not more so, than the contested 2009 elections that brought the Green revolution to the streets. Up until last week, Tehran mayor Mohamed Baqer Qalibaf was leading in pre-election polling with 32.7 percent, Jalili was in second with 28.7 with Rouhani and the rest trailing. By Thursday, after the other reform candidate, Mohamed Reza Aref, dropped out, Rouhani had taken a commanding lead. In a poll conducted by the independent Virginia-based consultancy service IPOS, Rouhani was at 31.7 percent, with Qalibaf at 24.1 percent and Jalili at 13.7 percent. Another poll conducted by a website affiliated with the government showed that Rohani was leading with 43 percent. Even then the final tally far exceeded the expectations of the regime polling, with Rouhani winning with slightly more than 50 percent. It would appear that the regime ran up the number in order to avoid any chances of a run-off that might return protestors to the streets again.
Nonetheless, there were some demonstrations Saturday in Tehran, with protestors demanding the government release all political prisoners and invoking the Green revolution’s martyr Neda Agha Soltan—“the lady of Iran,” they chanted, “your path is continuing… Don’t be afraid, we are all together.”
Elsewhere, the Islamic Republic is showing what’s in store for domestic opponents. In Iraq, the Iranian-affiliated militia Kataeb Hezbollah launched a rocket attack against Camp Liberty, where around 3000 members of the Mujahideen e-Khalq (MEK) have been living since they were moved from Camp Ashraf, with U.S. and UN assurances for their security. John Kerry issued a statement saying that “the United States strongly condemns today's brutal, senseless, and utterly unacceptable rocket attack on Camp Hurriya that killed and injured camp residents.” Two were killed in the attack and dozens wounded.
Attacking Camp Liberty sends a message to everyone who is committed to overthrowing the regime, says Ali Safavi, the U.S. spokesman for the National Council of Resistance in Iran , an umbrella organization with the MEK as its largest member. “The MEK is leading the opposition calling for the overthrow of the regime,” says Safavi, who believes that there’s a connection between the elections and the attack on Liberty. “A month after the June 2009 elections, they attacked Camp Ashraf. In February 2011 there were huge demonstrations and in April Ashraf was again attacked, with 36 killed.” With Saturday’s attack, says Safavi, the regime is sending a message— "‘Don’t even think about overthrowing the regime.’ Their language is rockets and bullets.”
And the man the regime has chosen to read from that script, its newly elected front man, is no moderate.