Hassan Rouhani, ‘Moderates’ and Iran’s Post-Election Path

By Mark Dubowitz

The Wall Street Journal

March 5, 2016

The recent elections in Iran sparked intense debate in the West. Many news outlets and analysts reported a resounding win by “moderates” supporting PresidentHassan Rouhani over hard-liners backed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Others saw through the guise of notorious hard-liners running as “moderates.” Hundreds of real moderates—those who want to make political and religious changes—were barred from running or didn’t even try to register; the most prominent remain under house arrestin jail, or in exile.

The Wilson Center’s Haleh Esfandiari, who knows something about the Iranian regime’s duplicity and brutality (she spent 105 days in solitary confinement in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison), dampened the post-election enthusiasm. In a recent Think Tank post, she wrote that, election results notwithstanding, Iran’s supreme leader, security agencies, and Revolutionary Guards control the country’s human rights, political freedoms, and major foreign policy issues. Still, Ms. Esfandiari saw reason for optimism, saying that the strong public support from the elections strengthened Mr. Rouhani’s hand in general and could give him more maneuvering room to implement economic and political changes.

Here’s why that thinking doesn’t hold up: Mr. Rouhani is not a moderate committed to transformation but a stalwart of the elite dedicated to preserving the revolution and clerical supremacy. These elections are evidence of how little the elite is changing: Mr. Rouhani is trying to reestablish unity after the fraudulent 2009 presidential election, and the Green Movement protests that followed, deeply divided the ruling elite and the country.

Mr. Rouhani has been hailed as a man of the system who nevertheless wants to make fundamental changes that would gradually free Iranian society and politics. Where is the evidence? In 1999, he supported crushing the student movement supporting then-President Mohammad Khatami, which effectively killed the only possibility for reform in Mr. Khatami’s presidency. Mr. Rouhani condemned student dissent in a 1999 speechand even threatened capital punishment. Since Mr. Rouhani was elected president in 2013, human rights abuses have worsenedexecutions by the state increased to around 1,000 in 2015.

Far from changing the basic structure of the Islamic Republic, Mr. Rouhani’s model seems to be more foreign-investment-led economic growth married to a more intelligently managed police state. This is a variation of the models of authoritarian control and crony capitalism of the Chinese Communist Party or Vladimir Putin. Mr. Rouhani hasn’t abandoned his commitment to clerical rule. He has moved to strengthen the regime internally through economic reform and devoted greater resources to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Lebanon’sHezbollah, and the Hezbollah-ization of Iraq. He has supported budget increases for the Revolutionary Guards, who have opposed him on many issues, as well as the Basij paramilitary forces and the much-feared Ministry of Intelligence.

Concerning economics, little about the crony capitalism that Mr. Rouhani and former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani practiced in the 1990s–a time of considerable domestic oppression and foreign terrorism–suggests that economic reforms are more likely now. The biggest beneficiaries of the nuclear deal are likely to be not private businesses but Iran’s supreme leader and the Revolutionary Guards, who dominate the major sectors of Iran’s economy; already, their companies are reaping the initial post-sanctions windfall.

None of this should surprise: Mr. Rouhani and Ayatollah Khamenei have worked together amicably for decades. After the trauma of 2009, why would Ayatollah Khamenei have allowed Mr. Rouhani to become president if the supreme leader thought he would be disloyal to him or the fundamentals of the regime? Mr. Rouhani isn’t likely to reinforce “moderation” in Iran’s regime; he may, however, make the Islamic Republic a more formidable force in the Middle East.