One of the conceits behind President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry’s endless series of concessions to Iran during the course of negotiating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, the so-called Iran nuclear deal) was that Iran wanted to come in from the cold and rejoin the community of nations. As such, Tehran would use the assets unfrozen and a hard currency windfall that foreign investors might bring in order to improve the lots of ordinary Iranians.
Sure, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ economic wing—Khatam al-Anbiya—might have a stranglehold over the Iranian economy, but Obama and Kerry believed both Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wanted to do the right thing.
That was always a fantasy fed by mirror imaging, naiveté, and ego, but denial is a powerful drug. To date, Obama administration alumni, the echo chamber they created with an interlinked network of journalists, talking heads, and theoretically technocratic organizations insist that they were right to gamble on Rouhani.
It’s an easy illusion to maintain so long as anything Rouhani does and says is ignored. Alas, far from being a reformer wanting to repair Iran’s economy, Rouhani’s own speeches show that his first priority is enhancing Iran’s military might. Again, this should not have a surprise. After all, between 1998 and 2005, European Union trade with Iran more than doubled and the price of oil quintupled. It was Rouhani in his capacity as secretary of the Supreme National Security Council who invested perhaps 70 percent of that hard currency windfall into Iran’s covert nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Speaking in Mashhad on February 9, 2005, he bragged about the success of his strategy to lull the West into complacency with dialogue before delivering the knock-out blow.
Shortly before the JCPOA’s adoption, I debated Thomas Pickering at the Philadelphia World Affairs Council. Pickering simply waved off concerns about Rouhani’s past by arguing that “that was then; this is now.” It was a useful strategy to adopt when the facts suggested cynicism to be in order.
But what is Rouhani saying now? Speaking at Iran Army Day celebrations on April 18, Rouhani bragged about his record as president. “The defense budget grew 145 percent since the beginning of [my] administration,” he declared to applause. So, the man upon whom the Obama administration placed its hope chose to channel money not into programs to benefit ordinary Iranians but rather into the coffers of the Iranian army and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Obama and Kerry may have believed a gamble on Rouhani was worth it. Alas, they never understood that he was playing a very different game–one which under no circumstances was meant to improve ties to the West or to mitigate the hardships faced by ordinary Iranians.