Smooth-Talking Rouhani, Trash-Talking Ahmadinejad: Different Style, Same Substance

Smooth-Talking Rouhani, Trash-Talking Ahmadinejad: Different Style, Same Substance

Trash-talking is a sports metaphor often used by individuals on the losing side of games. Rather than "walking the walk" (playing well), they "talk the talk." While Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad used trashy rhetoric about Holocaust denial and anti-Americanism cover up for his and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s mismanagement of the Iranian economy; enhanced U.N., EU, and U.S. trade and financial sanctions during Ahmadinejad’s two terms; and the failure to survive serious infighting with other members of the ruling elite from the judiciary and parliament.

The good news about the Ahmadinejad era was consistency between Iran’s rhetoric and its actions. Hot words were consistent with fast-spinning centrifuges moving Iran closer to enriching bomb-grade uranium. The bad news was that the major powers reached out to the Iranian regime despite rhetorical extremism and increased nuclear capability, while virtually ignoring the Iranian pro-democracy movement.

Negotiations with the Iranian regime continued on a sporadic basis in spite of the words and deeds. Tehran and the EU3 (Britain, France, and Germany) engaged in a proposal-counterproposal sequence from 2003 to 2005 (before and just after the advent of Ahmadinejad).

In July 2005, Hasan Rouhani, then secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council and now president of Iran, proposed to the EU3, among other things:

  • an agreement on initial limitations on uranium enrichment at the Natanz enrichment site, a facility revealed by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, the only pro-democracy organization that rejects clerical rule
  • negotiations for full-scale operation of Natanz
  • arrangements to import material for uranium conversion

But Rouhani, known as the "diplomatic sheikh," bragged about having duped the West in these negotiations. According to a March 2006 Telegraph article, Rouhani boasted that while nuclear talks took place in Tehran with the EU3, Iran was able to complete installation of equipment for conversion, a key stage in the nuclear fuel process, at its Isfahan plant.

The good news as the Rouhani era begins is that his words are soothing to our ears. It is good to hear from an Iranian president that he pledges to be moderate and flexible. The bad news is that Rouhani has only taken cosmetic steps to demonstrate moderation, and the West is bound to reach out even more to Rouhani because of a misperception of moderation.

As the U.N. General Assembly opens, Rouhani is on a charm offensive. But he also continues to say some of the same things his predecessor said, such as, Iran won’t relinquish "one iota" of the country’s nuclear rights. A campaign slogan, "moderation and wisdom," which continued during his inaugural address in August, is the tone that calms the Western mind and makes for humongous media coverage. And having a "good sense of humor" does not a moderate make.

Talking the talk may not translate into walking the walk; that is, tone may produce a "pen pal," U.S. President Barack Obama, but correspondence has to go beyond feel-good winks and nods to substantive changes. It is much easier for the media to cover comforting words than to discuss substantive polices like carrying out actions proposed by the major powers in the April 2013 Kazakhstan talks with the P5+1 (Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States, and Germany).

There is little evidence that Ahmadinejad and Rouhani differ on substance. A major stumbling block was and is Iran’s claim to an inherent right to enrich uranium, which has been an obstacle in negotiations under successive Iranian presidents, including Ahmadinejad and Rouhani.

In addition to Iran’s nuclear file, trash-talking Ahmadinejad and smooth-talking Rouhani see eye to eye on maltreatment of Iranian pro-democracy movements. Rouhani has not welcomed the National Council of Resistance of Iran, the largest unit of which is the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI), to participate in truly competitive elections. To do so would be to renounce the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran; it bestows on the supreme leader ultimate authority.

Indeed, Rouhani continues Ahmadinejad’s policy of pressuring Baghdad to murder 52 members of the PMOI in Camp Ashraf, Iraq; force survivors to a prison-like Iraqi facility ironically called Camp Liberty; and hold seven as hostages in preparation for forcible removal to Iran where they fear being harmed. In a Sept. 19 letter this year, Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign-policy chief, stated that the hostages are held in a prison near Baghdad and there is "a significant risk that they could be sent to Iran."

In comparison with the Ahmadinejad era of consistency between rhetoric and actions in the quest for nuclear capability and persecution of pro-democracy groups, the Rouhani era shows consistency of actions to acquire a nuclear weapons capability and mistreatment of pro-democracy movements.

The only difference between Ahmadinejad and Rouhani is in style, not substance.

Raymond Tanter is president of the Iran Policy Committee and was a member of the National Security Council staff in Ronald Reagan’s administration. His latest book is Arab Rebels and Iranian Dissidents.