Hassan Rohani: Really NOT a Moderate

So, much of the media is making a fuss over the possibility that we might actually have an Iranian president who acknowledges the Holocaust and all of its horrors--including the horrors specifically visited on Jews. It's amazing that we are still debating whether the Holocaust happened, and it is even more amazing still that there are those who are positively rejoicing at the possibility that Hassan Rohani may potentially be not quite as antediluvian as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but given all of the fatuous nonsense that we had to put up with during the Ahmadinejad presidency--including, but not limited to Holocaust denial--I suppose I can understand if people want to celebrate small victories.

Only, here's the problem: We may not have even a small victory to celebrate. As Michael Moynihan writes, Rohani is not nearly as enlightened on the Holocaust as some might want to believe he is. Consider the following regarding a recent Rohani interview on CNN:

. . . Christiane Amanpour, an Iranian-Brit who apparently speaks Farsi, asked the inevitable question, the one that would uncover further evidence of moderation and counterbalance the sinister views of former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who famously revealed himself to be an amateur scholar of the Second World War: Does the right honorable gentleman from Tehran believe the Holocaust actually happened? The translator, perhaps fearing that rendering every word would weaken the meaning, offered the following English rendering of Rouhani’s response: “I’ve said before that I am not a historian and that when it comes to speaking of the dimensions of the Holocaust, it is the historians that should reflect on it. But in general I can tell you that any crime that happens in history against humanity, including the crime that Nazis committed towards the Jews as well as non-Jews is reprehensible and condemnable. Whatever criminality they committed against the Jews, we condemn...”

A bit slippery, but surely an improvement over Ahmadinejad's contention that Auschwitz was an elaborate hoax. But according to the Fars News Agency—which is just like a real news agency, except run by Iran’s psychopathic Revolutionary Guards—this wasn’t exactly what Rouhani said:

“I have said before that I am not a historian and historians should specify, state and explain the aspects of historical events, but generally we fully condemn any kind of crime committed against humanity throughout the history, including the crime committed by the Nazis both against the Jews and non-Jews, the same way that if today any crime is committed against any nation or any religion or any people or any belief, we condemn that crime and genocide. Therefore, what the Nazis did is condemned, (but) the aspects that you talk about, clarification of these aspects is a duty of the historians and researchers, I am not a history scholar.”

*The Wall Street Journal verified the broad strokes of the Fars News Agency translation (no one else bothered), and there are indeed subtle but substantial difference between these two versions. So to recap: CNN probably botched a Farsi translation and an official Iranian news agency rushed to its leader’s defense, lest the libel spread that he acknowledged the Holocaust as a real historical event.

But while Revolutionary Guards philologists are rather insistent that Rouhani never said “Holocaust,” condemned “whatever criminality [the Nazis] committed against the Jews,” or said the word “reprehensible,” all agree that he employed the old Holocaust deniers tricks of “questioning” the death toll, averring that many others groups were also victims, and claiming that a well-established historical fact requires further examination by “historians and researchers,” while repeatedly pointing out that he is “not a historian” (Ahmadinejad told NPR in 2010, that he was “not a historian” but that “we should allow researchers to examine all sorts of questions because it's quite clear that when they do, they will reach different conclusions"). And even in CNN’s translation, Rouhani condemns unspecified “crimes,” while encouraging historians to “clarify” what actually happened.

Moynihan's entirely justifiable conclusion is that Rohani, just like any other "skilled Holocaust denier," "parses, dissects, and molests language, quibbling with the word 'denial'—they typically acknowledge that many Jews died, but were victims of various typhus epidemics—and wondering why shadowy forces are hamstringing dissenting historians." He tells us that there is little to no difference between Rohani on the one hand, and Holocaust-denying "historian" David Irving, who gets condemned by the New York Times, even though the Times claimed that Rohani was no Holocaust denier. To be sure, there are arguments back and forth over what Rohani really said, and you should read the whole of Moynihan's piece to get a sense of those arguments, but it would appear that we have yet more evidence that Hassan Rohani may not be the moderate that many think he is.

Deeds. Not Words. Deeds.

Ray Takeyh is right on the money when he reminds us what we should expect from Hassan Rohani before we go around calling him "a reformer":

Rouhani's attempt to refashion Iran's image and temper its rhetoric should be welcomed. After eight years of Ahmadinejad provocations that often unhinged the international community, a degree of self-restraint is admirable. However, judge Tehran by its conduct and not its words.

It is not enough for Rouhani to condemn the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Is he prepared to withdraw the Revolutionary Guard contingents that have done much to buttress Assad's brutality?

It is not sufficient for Rouhani to speak of transparency; he must curb Iran's troublesome nuclear activities and comply with the U.N. Security Council resolutions.

And it is not enough for Rouhani to speak of a tolerant society unless he is prepared to free his many former comrades and colleagues who are languishing in prisons under false charges.

Rouhani's reliability has to be measured by his actions, not by his speeches or tweets.

There are many out there who are willing to believe that Rohani is a reformer based solely on cosmetic gestures and somewhat more mild rhetoric--especially when compared to Ahmadinejad. These people might very well be setting themselves up for a major disappointment

Hassan Rohani Is No Moderate

To wit. Of course, one does not have to be a "historian" to know that the Holocaust occurred anymore than one has to be a physician to know that the appendix is not responsible for higher cognitive functions. And of course, it should surprise precisely no one to see that the standard language used to denounce Israel remains in use.

Perhaps President Obama could write a letter to Rohani, reminding him that if one wants to be taken seriously as a moderate, one actually has to act like a moderate. And perhaps, we ought to put aside for the moment all of this talk about a thaw in relations between Iran and the rest of the world.

Oh, and don't say that you weren't warned that Rohani is no moderate.

Hassan Rohani May Disappoint Us Yet

My latest for the Atlantic Council discusses whether Hassan Rohani will prove himself a genuine reformer. On that issue, I have my doubts:

The Islamic Republic of Iran has a new president: Hassan Rouhani. There has been a lot of talk about Rouhani’s supposed political moderation and pragmatism, just as in 1982, there was talk that Yuri Andropov’s supposed fondness for jazz indicated a liking for the West in general, and the possibility that there would be a thaw in Soviet-American relations. In Andropov’s case, such thinking proved to be too optimistic. Similarly, there may be no justification for optimism in Rouhani’s case either; both because Rouhani has been a mainstay of the Islamic revolution in Iran, and because the Iranian president has significantly less power than many Western observers seem to think he does.

Read it all. Incidentally, it would appear that the Atlantic Council insists on spelling the new president's name as "Rouhani," when it should be "Rohani"; the first syllable rhymes with "roe" or "no." But as long as they keep publishing me, I will likely refrain from complaining.

The Iranian Presidential Elections: What Next?

Despite my disbelief  that Iran's theocrats would allow a perceived moderate to win the Iranian presidential election, a perceived moderate has gone ahead and done just that. It would appear that the turnout for the election was so significant and the votes for Hassan Rohani so overwhelming that the regime could not afford to implement the kind of post-election fraud that it tried to implement in the aftermath of the 2009 presidential elections.

So Rohani will become president on August 3, and the moderates have won one, right? Well, maybe not. I called Rohani "a perceived moderate" for a reason:

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.”

There is a difference between being a moderate and being clever. Rohani is certainly more clever than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose belligerence and outrageous statements caused the international community to rally against Iran, and he may be more moderate than Ali Khamene'i, who because of his weak theological credentials is not taken seriously by much of the clergy, and who has to rely on his hardline reputation and his relationship with Iran's Revolutionary Guards in order to keep power. But all of this does not moderation make. More:

Hassan Rowhani, Iran's president-elect, said he hopes the country can reach a new agreement with the West over its nuclear programme, but ruled out a halt to its controversial uranium enrichment programme.

Mr Rowhani, a moderate cleric who was declared winner of 
Iran's presidential election on Saturday, also described as unfair and unjustified sanctions imposed against the Islamic republic over the nuclear issue.

The 64-year-old's victory raised hopes of an easing of strained ties with Western nations, but he used his first news conference on Monday to rule out a halt to the enrichment programme.

"This period is over," Mr Rowhani said, referring to international demands for a halt to Tehran's uranium enrichment programme.

There were "many ways to build trust" with the West, he added, as Iran would be "more transparent to show that its activities fall within the framework of international rules".

No one should be surprised that the nuclear enrichment program is not ending anytime soon. Since the days of the shah, Iran has wanted nuclear power and it is utterly unremarkable that the Iranian government is continuing work to achieve nuclear capacity. But for those who might have thought that the "moderate" Rohani will curb Iran's nuclear program, news that he is resolved to continue it must come as a shock.

Rohani makes noises  about wanting better ties with the United States, but he won't engage in direct talks with the United States in order to bring about better ties. Thomas Erdbrink does a good job in describing the limits to Rohani's sense of "moderation":

. . . Mr. Rowhani, 64, is no renegade reformist, voted in while Iran’s leaders were not paying attention. Instead, his political life has been spent at the center of Iran’s conservative establishment, from well before Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini led the Islamic Revolution in the 1970s. And analysts say that Mr. Rowhani’s first priority will be mediating the disturbed relationship between that leadership and Iran’s citizens, not carrying out major change.

Even his nickname — “the diplomat sheik” — is testament to his role as a pragmatist seeking conciliation for the Islamic leadership. Whether in dealing with protesting students, the aftermath of devastating earthquakes or, in his stint as nuclear negotiator, working to ease international pressure as Iran moved forward with its nuclear program, Mr. Rowhani has worked to find practical ways to help advance the leadership’s goals.

To be sure, it will be interesting to see what happens next in Iran. Elections have consequences and the results of the Iranian presidential election will be sure to resonate . . . somehow. But as all Iran-watchers know, there are serious limits to the powers of the Iranian president. True power resides in the hands of Khamene'i, as the nation's supreme leader. And to the extent that Hassan Rohani has power, he may not use it in the service of moderation.

More on the First Round of the Iranian Presidential Election

In this post, I pleaded with Iranian reformists not to boycott the Iranian presidential elections in response to regime efforts to curb moderate and reformist participation in the political process. As I mentioned, "[t]he regime would like nothing less than to see moderate and reformist voters disillusioned, dispirited, apathetic and un-engaged in the upcoming elections; after all, such a state of affairs makes it easier to elect hardliners without resorting to vote-rigging, and thus without generating controversy."

Apparently, this blog is rather well-read in Iran, because my calls were heeded:

. . . many veteran Iran political watchers, who had expected a conservative winner in what had been a carefully vetted and controlled campaign, expressed surprise.

“If the reports are true, it tells me that there was a hidden but huge reservoir of reformist energy in Iran that broke loose in a true political wave,” said Cliff Kupchan, an Iran analyst for the Eurasia Group, a political risk consulting firm in Washington. “It was unpredictable — not even tip of the iceberg visible two days or three days ago — but it seems to have happened.”

Farideh Farhi, an Iranian scholar at the University of Hawaii, while careful not to draw conclusions until the official result was known, said it was clear that reformists and other disaffected voters in Iran had summoned energy to mobilize for a heavy turnout despite their own doubts about the system.

“Everyone’s assumption was they would not be able to create a wave of voters in the society,” Ms. Farhi said. “This outcome was not something planned by Ayatollah Khamenei.”

The mood in the country led to the reformist decision to participate heavily in the election:

In surveys and interviews throughout the campaign, Iranians have consistently listed as their top priorities the economy, individual rights and the normalization of relations with the rest of the world. They also said they saw the vote as a way to send a message about their displeasure with the direction of the country, which has been hobbled by economic mismanagement and tough Western sanctions, stemming from the government’s refusal to stop enriching uranium.

This episode should teach reformists that they have the numbers and the power to change the political process for the better if they insist on continuing to participate in that process. Hopefully, there will be no more talk of boycotts and no more arguments that reformists should abstain from politics. Yes, the hardliners will do everything within their power to prevent reformists from changing Iran for the better, but reformists shouldn't make the hardliners' job easier by deserting the political field. 

I do have to take issue with one part of the Times story, in which we are told that Hassan Rohani's "closest competitor in the early results, Mr. Ghalibaf, is also considered a moderate, a strong manager who has improved the quality of life in Tehran in his eight years as mayor." Qalibaf is a moderate? Really?

Is Iran’s presidential hopeful Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf a hard-liner or a moderate? It depends on his audience, apparently.

Recordings of two starkly different accounts given by Qalibaf of his role in the crackdown against protests have emerged online.

One recording was allegedly made
 at a meeting Qalibaf is said to have held a few weeks ago with hard-line Basij students.

In it Qalibaf, Tehran's mayor and a former Revolutionary Guards air force commander, appears to take credit for cracking down on Iran’s student movement. He says he personally beat up students with batons in the 1999 crackdown in Tehran and obtained permission from Iran’s Supreme National Security Council to shoot at student protesters in 2003. The Basij forces in recent years have been accused of being actively involved in repressive measures against students.

Yet, a few weeks later, in another meeting with students at Tehran’s Sharif University, Qalibaf had a very different account of the same 2003 event: He said he received the order to shoot at students but refused to do so.

Qalibaf's contradictory accounts appear to be part of an attempt to appeal to voters from different sides of the political spectrum as the June 14 presidential election approaches.

Why would any Iranian trust a presidential candidate who talks out of both sides of his mouth like this?

 

Surprising--and Unsurprising--News from the First Round of Iran's Presidential Election

First, the surprising news: The leading moderate candidate for the presidency has emerged as the strongest of all of the candidates after the first round of voting

Early results from Iran's presidential election put the reformist-backed candidate, Hassan Rouhani, in the lead.

With 2.9m ballots counted, the cleric had 1.46m votes, or 49.87%, well ahead of Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, with 488,000 votes, or 16.65%.

If no candidate wins more than 50%, a run-off will be held next Friday.

It remains to be seen if a second round can be avoided. If we end up having a second round, my fear is that at that point, the regime will work to ensure that the deck is stacked against Rohani. Unless the regime is absolutely determined to ensure that no one ever again accuses it of rigging presidential elections, I can't believe that it will allow a moderate to become president and give Ali Khamene'i yet another round of headaches.

And now, for the unsurprising news: 

Millions of Iranians took to the streets to demand a re-run after the last presidential election in June 2009, when the Supreme Leader dismissed claims by the three defeated candidates of widespread fraud.

Two of them, former Prime Minister Mir Hussein Mousavi and senior cleric Mehdi Karroubi, became leaders of a nationwide opposition known as the Green Movement, after its signature colour.

They were placed under house arrested in February 2011 when they applied to stage a protest in support of the anti-government uprisings which were sweeping the Arab world. They are still being detained.

No foreign observers are monitored this year's election and there have also been concerns that media coverage in the run-up has been unfair.

Many reformist newspapers have been shut down, access to the internet and foreign broadcasters restricted, and journalists detained.

On Thursday, the BBC accused the Iranian authorities of "unprecedented levels of intimidation" of BBC employees' families.

It said Iran had warned the families of 15 BBC Persian Service staff that they must stop working for the BBC or their lives in London would be endangered.

Tehran has so far made no comment on the allegation.

Proof positive that no matter who becomes president, the nature of the regime prevents the emergence of democratic discourse and the thriving of basic political/social/media freedoms.

The Ghosts of Lincoln and Douglas Weep

It's bad enough that the presidential election process in Iran consists of having hardliners eliminate reformist candidates so that the former can hold on to power without having to actually bother to steal the election (though 2009 showed quite clearly that hardliners are entirely willing and eager to steal an election if that is what it takes to hold on to power). It's even worse that the interaction amongst the candidates who are allowed to run makes it extra special clear that the Iranian presidential election is an utter farce:

Iran's first debate between candidates for the presidency degenerated into acrimony live on state television on Friday when, instead of discussing the economy, some of the hopefuls resorted to sniping over the questions and format.

The testy exchange between the moderator and reformist Mohammad Reza Aref, moderate Hassan Rohani, and conservative Mohsen Rezaie was the subject of wide ridicule by Iranian viewers who had tuned in for the four-hour discussion.

They were among eight candidates for the June 14 vote presenting their ideas on an 
economy buffeted by international sanctions over Iran's disputed nuclear program, rising unemployment, and inflation running at over 30 percent, according to official figures.

[. . .]

The debate's first half allowed the eight to give a three minute answer, with a 90 second response from the other seven. Then moderator Morteza Heydari asked them an economic question that could only be answered yes, no or with an abstention.

One question was: If you want to select an official for your administration, what is their most important quality? Candidates could choose between a lack of corruption, experience, expertise or prudence.

They were also presented with pictures, such as an agricultural scene, a market, or a cargo ship, and asked to say whatever came to mind.

[. . .]

The three, seated with their colleagues in a line of desks in front of a backdrop of flowers and rolling woodland, said the format was farcical and did not allow them to present their plans to the country or engage in dialogue with each other.

Several times they simply refused to answer the question.

"In honor of the dear people of my country I will sit here, but I will answer none of your test questions," said Aref, gesticulating with his pen towards the moderator standing in front of an image of Khamenei.

"I am a patient person and I can tolerate a lot," added Rezaie. "With these repetitive, discontinuous, short, one-to-three minute answers, the people are being harmed and the eight people up here are being insulted."

Rohani, the most prominent moderate candidate in an election dominated by hardliners, said: "People will see this style of debate as insulting."

I fearlessly predict that future debates will include the "if you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?" question.