Searching for an Islamist Moderate in the Middle East

Searching for an Islamist Moderate in the Middle East

An "Islamist moderate" is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. Assuming a cleric who runs for president of Iran can have moderate views would be like finding the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, leading a group of the eight Iranian women described in a secret book club in Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran.

The likelihood of finding a moderate within the Islamist establishment in Iran is much lower than finding one in secular regimes like Gadhafi’s Libya or Assad’s Syria. Secular autocrats are more likely to make cost-benefit tradeoffs than religious zealots. Making such tradeoffs in a bargaining process is the essence of being a moderate.

So long as military autocrats are unchallenged at home, they can act moderately abroad. Until the Egyptian people revolted in February 2011, former President Mubarak of Egypt could make tradeoffs abroad because his secular views were untainted by religious zealotry. Therefore, it made sense for him to preserve the Egypt-Israel peace treaty and also permit Washington immediate access to the Suez Canal for Persian Gulf contingencies requiring rapid movement of American forces. In return, Mubarak received some $1.3 billion in military assistance from Washington.

Anticipating that ousted Egyptian President Morsy would forget his Muslim Brotherhood ideology to make similar tradeoffs, however, assumes his Islamist background is irrelevant to his governance. Likewise, it makes no sense to search for moderates within Tehran’s ruling elite. Indeed, just as with Morsy of Egypt, an Islamist ideology is a core concern of any member of the governing clerics in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Although progressive moderates led by the Iranian Mojahedin’s Massoud Rajavi led the battles to overthrow the Shah, Islamists directed by Ayatollah Khomeini seized post-revolutionary Iran from the coalition of moderates. Khomeini then fashioned an Islamic Republic with a mission of "redeeming the region for the forces of righteousness." Indeed, Khomeini’s ideology trumps other perceived national interests, making it impossible for a moderate to survive within the elite, much less make compromises with the major powers in bargaining about nuclear issues.

The Western press periodically falls head over heels for any new president of Iran who shows even a hint of moderation. But hope does not a moderate make. Consider headlines after Hassan Rouhani’s Aug. 4 inauguration: NBC: "Moderate cleric Rouhani sworn in as president of Iran," the Associated Press: "Iran’s supreme leader endorses moderate Rouhani for president after his landslide election win," And the BBC happily opined that Rouhani’s "campaign slogan, ‘moderation and wisdom,’ continued to be a theme as he was inaugurated in August."

But such headlining and opining that there has been an election of an "Islamist moderate" from within the Iranian regime is a triumph of hope over experience. Consider the dashed hopes by a succession of presidential "moderates" from within.

The first was Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a cleric who was President of Iran from 1989-1997. By promising to liberalize the economy and taking steps to do so, the media called Rafsanjani a moderate. But the steps were to privatize certain profitable sectors, creating in effect a "popcorn economy," where he redistributed public goods as private benefits to friends and family, as if they were popcorn at a theater. 

The second was another cleric, former Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Mohammad Khatami, who became president in 1997. There was a gap between those who benefited from Rafsanjani’s economic liberalization and those who did not, due to the absence of political reforms. And Khatami did little to close the gap. After he sided with the regime against his student base during 1999 demonstrations and riots, it prompted one journalist to write, "The deception of the reform had reached its peak."

Aljazeera led with the "M" word in its depiction of the third such cleric: "Moderate Hassan Rouhani has secured more than 50 percent of the Iran presidential ballot to win the election." But like Khatami, Rouhani took a hardline against the students during the 1999 demonstrations, though during his campaign Rouhani acted as if he had the back of the students.

By the definition of a moderate Iranian president as someone willing to fight within the system to make tradeoffs in the nuclear talks en route to cutting a deal, Rouhani is no moderate. Consider his performance as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005. In a speech to a group of academics and clerics, Rouhani boasted that while nuclear talks were taking place in Tehran with the EU3 — France, Germany, and the UK — Iran was able to complete the installation of equipment for the production of yellowcake, the partially refined uranium ore that is a key stage in the nuclear fuel process, at its Isfahan plant. At the same time Rouhani convinced European diplomats that Iran was not doing so.

If Rouhani were a true moderate, he would fight within the Iranian ruling elite to end the nuclear weapons program. But if he were to do so, he would encounter the wrath of Khamenei, for having taken a stance in accord with that of the President-Elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), Maryam Rajavi. Her ten point plan for a future Iran states that, "We want a non-nuclear Iran, free of weapons of mass destruction." The NCRI is the only major Iranian dissident organization that explicitly rejects clerical rule. Its largest unit is the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK).

On the home front, if Rouhani were a moderate, he would follow the footsteps of another cleric, Hossein Ali Montazeri, Khomeini’s former heir apparent who protested Khomeini’s decision to show no mercy in the 1988 execution of some 30,000 political prisoners, the bulk of whom were members of the MEK. Khomeini then purged Montazeri for his moderation.

Finally, if Rouhani were a moderate he would not have appointed as his Justice Minister a former official from the Intelligence Ministry who had the final say in who died and who lived in 1988 mass killings. That official showed no mercy, just as Khomeini demanded.

Raymond Tanter served on the National Security Council staff in the Reagan-Bush administration and is Professor Emeritus at the University of Michigan. His latest book is Arab Rebels and Iranian Dissidents.