In Iran’s Election, Americans Should Root for the ‘Hard-Liner’

The ‘moderate’ Rouhani has made it too easy for American officials to deceive themselves.


Iranian President Hassan Rouhani registers his candidacy for the presidency in Tehran, April 14.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani registers his candidacy for the presidency in Tehran, April 14. PHOTO: ZUMA PRESS

In Washington there is a consensus that the re-election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is in the best interests of the U.S. Most find the self-avowed pragmatic cleric, who championed the 2015 nuclear deal, a less menacing choice than his “hard-line” opponent Ebrahim Raisi, who is rumored to be the preferred candidate of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

But a victory for Mr. Rouhani, who appears destined to win unless Mr. Khamenei rigs the election in Mr. Raisi’s favor, would be the worst possible outcome. Better than anyone, Mr. Rouhani can align Iran’s factions on major foreign-policy questions. Put another way, he is uniquely capable of fortifying the theocracy.

Mr. Rouhani and the supreme leader go way back. They worked together after the 1979 revolution to purge the Iranian army. Mr. Rouhani is also a founding father of the feared Iranian ministry of intelligence. He took the supreme leader’s side in the brutal suppression of the pro-democracy Green Movement in 2009–10, which was probably the most dangerous time for the clerical regime since Saddam Hussein’s invasion in 1980.

Despite the decades-old feud between him and Mr. Khamenei’s praetorians, the Revolutionary Guard Corps, Mr. Rouhani has tried to maintain amicable relations with senior officers, including Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the head of the expeditionary Qods Force and the overall commander of the foreign Shiite militias deployed to Syria and Iraq. Mr. Rouhani is as ardent a supporter of Iran’s new Shiite imperialism as is Gen. Soleimani.

The supreme leader allowed Mr. Rouhani to run and win the presidential election in 2013 because he had confidence in him to keep down dissent, either through co-optation or oppression. Although Mr. Rouhani has hinted that he would like to release the leaders of the Green Movement, Mir-Hosein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, from house arrest, he has studiously avoided the subject while in office. The supreme leader’s preference for a muscular police state doesn’t much trouble the president, although Mr. Rouhani would certainly prefer a more selective, less disruptive use of harsh methods.

Mr. Rouhani’s big difference with the supreme leader has been over economics. The president has long been an advocate of Western investment. He has been explicit in his desire to play Europe off the U.S., and to use Western businessmen as lobbyists against renewed sanctions. He has been ably aided in this effort by Javad Zarif, one of the most talented, polished and mendacious foreign ministers the Islamic Republic has ever deployed.

Mr. Rouhani appears to believe that the regime can implement a version of mainland China’s success. Islamic authoritarianism can use foreign money in a more capitalistic system to strengthen the state economically and militarily. He clearly doesn’t believe Western investment necessarily breeds sedition. For him, theocracy and state capitalism aren’t mutually exclusive.

Mr. Khamenei backed the last big wave of foreign investment in Iran, in the 1990s. As his own power has grown, he has become fearful about the nexus between economics and culture. Although he backed Mr. Rouhani’s plan in 2013 for a nuclear deal that puts temporary restraints on the regime’s atomic aspirations in exchange for sanctions relief, his fear of insidious foreign influences has metastasized. Nonetheless, he continues to back the nuclear accord and commerce with Europeans.

Iran’s ruling elite was purged after the near-cataclysm of the 2009 presidential election. Those in power have worldviews, especially about the projection of Iranian power abroad, that are more or less in sync. What unites them—fear of anticlerical populism, the Westernized college-educated elite, and American power—is probably greater than what divides them. Though the 77-year-old Mr. Khamenei’s phobia of Western culture and anxiety about his successor may well convince him to throw the election to Mr. Raisi.

 It ought to be clear that Washington isn’t better off with a more powerful Islamic Republic, the ultimate objective of Mr. Rouhani. The Revolutionary Guards’ budget is going up 24% this year. Although enormously appealing to Western businessmen and politicians, the moderation-through-trade argument that President Obama advanced during the nuclear talks isn’t historically sound. Mr. Rouhani’s mentor, President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, opened Iran’s economy to Western investment in the 1990s while also boosting Iran’s support for terrorism. As Maxime Rodinson, the renowned French Marxist historian pointed out, Islamic despotism and capitalism can coexist.

Washington would be far better off if a “hard-liner” won the presidential contest. It would make it more difficult for Congress and the Trump administration to deceive themselves about Iran’s intentions. It would increase the distance between the Iranian people and their overlords, improving the chances that the Revolutionary Guards, who had difficulty shooting demonstrators in 2009, will splinter.

Opposition to clerical dictatorship will erupt again—the sooner the better given the nuclear deal’s temporary restraints. Mr. Rouhani’s promise is an illusion for those weary of the Middle East. Like a mirage on the desert’s edge, this mullah beckons fools.

Mr. Gerecht, a former Iranian-targets officer in the Central Intelligence Agency, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Appeared in the May. 17, 2017, print edition.

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