As the results from Iran’s elections have come in, the headlines are telling what sounds, at least on the surface, to be an encouraging story. “Moderates Win Key Iran Elections,” says the Wall Street Journal. All accounts point to a repudiation of what we are told are “hard-line” opponents of the nuclear deal with the West and modernization of the country. That sounds good from the point of view of those hoping, like President Obama, that Iran will use the nuclear deal to “get right with the world.”
But informed observers need to ask two questions about the assumptions that those headlines are buttressing. One is whether the winning candidates in these elections are truly moderates rather than just a different faction of hard-liners. The other is whether these results have even the slightest chance of producing an Iran that truly is a moderate nation that eschews terrorism, poses no danger to its neighbors, no longer oppresses its own people, create a more open society and has no desire to build a nuclear weapon.
Unfortunately, any dispassionate analysis of the election makes it clear that the answers to those questions are, respectively, no and no.
Parsing the identity of the winners in the Iranian elections is no simple task. Most foreign observers are guided by the list of those endorsed by Iran’s supposedly moderate President Hassan Rouhani for inclusion in the Assembly of Experts that will choose a successor to current Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But there is a big problem with treating Rouhani’s list as a test of moderation or that of the endorsement of any other person labeled as a reformist leader.
We already knew that in Iran’s faux democratic system, a Guardian Council controlled by Khamenei vetted all of the possible candidates for office and disqualified virtually all those who had any real inclination to transform the country from a theocratic tyranny into something less awful. So, no matter what Rouhani or anyone else might say, the election winners that are called “moderates” in accounts of the vote are not actually moderate by any reasonable definition.
Bloomberg’s Eli Lake explains the reality of the election in a piece in which he points out that one of the victors considered a reformer is the same person who has called for the execution of leaders of the Green Movement that led protests against the regime in 2009 that ended in bloodshed and repression. Two others are former intelligence ministers that murdered dissidents. Others on those lists of moderates have made it clear that they resist the label and consider themselves part of the Islamist mainstream that supports the status quo. What apparently has happened is that faced with the disqualification of all of their candidates, reformers have endorsed others that do not share their views. That gives them the opportunity to declare victory today but is meaningless in terms of the impact of the vote on the future of Iranian society.
This brings us back to the question of whether Rouhani is actually a moderate. Compared to other even more extreme Iranian figures, perhaps he is someone whose views are less in keeping with the Islamist regime’s most medieval aspects. Moderation is, after all, a relative term that can’t be proven objectively. But as we have seen during since Rouhani’s election to a post that has far less power than that of Khamenei, he is not a force for moderation if by that we mean the creation of an Iran that poses less of a threat to both its own people or the rest of the world.
Despite the widespread belief in his moderation, Rouhani is a fervent support of the Islamist republic created by the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979. Any changes that he might favor would not loosen the iron grip of the theocrats on every aspect of Iranian society. He has done nothing to interfere with the efforts of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard to spread their brand of Islamist terror around the world. Nor has he opposed Iran’s intervention in Syria where its own troops and Hezbollah auxiliaries have helped prop up the barbarous Assad regime. He is also not opposed to the Iranian nuclear program or Khamenei’s quest for regional hegemony. To the contrary, despite the widespread belief in his moderation, Rouhani has merely been a more palatable figurehead figure than his predecessor, the loathsome Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
What Rouhani and the moderates do want is more money from the West. Rouhani is a strong believer in the merits of the nuclear deal embraced by the Obama administration. And from Iran’s point of view, he’s right. By accepting a ten-year delay (assuming they don’t cheat) in their progress toward a bomb, Iran got Western approval for its nuclear program and a windfall in terms of frozen assets and the dismantling of international sanctions. Some hard-liners opposed the deal because they wanted to press ahead toward a weapon and because they think they are better off without Western cash. Rouhani’s moderation then is not so much an indication of his desire for a more liberal society but the function of a pragmatic desire to use the naïveté of the Obama administration to serve the interests of the hard line goals of the Iranian revolution. That’s not moderation. That’s just a much more clever brand of Islamist extremism.
That’s why even if Rouhani’s friends dominate the parliament; we shouldn’t expect any actual change in Iranian society or its foreign policy. Rouhani and his moderates don’t want a free Iran or even one that isn’t a threat to its neighbors. But they do want to exploit the foolish desires of Western liberals to pretend that the conflict with the Islamist regime is over.
It isn’t over and won’t be so long as the Islamists are in charge in Tehran. Far from justifying the nuclear deal, the results prove again that Western expectations about it were entirely unrealistic. The victory of the moderates doesn’t mean change. What it does mean is a longer, tougher fight for those who wish to defend the Middle East against an aggressive and a now richer — thanks to the nuclear deal — Islamist regime.