The prevailing narrative in the Western media regarding the new president of the Islamic Republic, Hasan Rouhani, is reminiscent of the optimistic assessment of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini by Jimmy Carter’s administration. President Carter’s ambassador to the United Nations, Andrew Young, said that Khomeini would eventually be hailed as a saint; Carter’s ambassador to Iran, William Sullivan, observed that Khomeini was a Gandhi-like figure. Khomeini was seen by the administration at that time as a man of impeccable integrity and honesty. Today, of course, the gravity of this historic mistake and its consequences are self-evident.
Yet, we again are bearing witness to a similar self-deception as Rouhani is presented to Western publics as a moderate leader possessing charm and humility, a man of vision for a new, free Iran who wishes to pursue a constructive dialogue with the West. This is another historic mistake in the making, the consequences of which — a nuclear-armed Iran — will be catastrophic not only for the Iranian people but for the region and the international community.
Tehran has done its best to reinforce the view that Rouhani represents a major shift in the strategic direction in the Islamic Republic. In a seemingly humanitarian effort, for example, political prisoners close to the so-called reformist faction of the Islamic Republic were released only days before Rouhani’s arrival in New York. Even Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei recently displayed an unprecedented tolerance of the United States. Aware of the West’s deep mistrust of him and his role in the current stalemate over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, Khamenei announced that it was time for what he described as "heroic leniency" with respect to direct talks with the United States. Rouhani himself told NBC News on Sept. 18 that "in its nuclear program, this government enters with full power and has complete authority."
The White House announced that President Barack Obama is willing to meet with Rouhani. Obama noted in an interview with Telemundo that there are indications that Rouhani "is somebody who is looking to open dialogue with the West and with the United States in a way that we haven’t seen in the past." And therefore, Obama said, he believes that the United States should test Iran.
Many in the Western media have convinced themselves that with Rouhani’s arrival, there is a genuine opportunity to resolve the nuclear issue. Few, apparently, are willing to review Rouhani’s statements, especially those made during his recent presidential campaign, which reveal the Islamic Republic’s strategy in dealing with the international community on its nuclear program. During the last presidential election, the so-called hard-liners were critical of Rouhani’s candidacy and accused him of being too soft with the West when he was serving as the Islamic Republic’s chief nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005. The sharpest criticisms were aimed at his agreement to suspend all enrichment activities in what was called the Saadabad agreement.
In an interview on Iranian state television on May 27, Rouhani refuted the allegation that he had overseen the curtailment of uranium enrichment activities, and in so doing he outlined the strategy the Tehran regime had pursued, its results, and the major tasks that he believes lie ahead.
Rouhani began by observing that the regime’s basic principle is to turn a threat into an opportunity. He pointed out that the policy during his tenure, under the supervision of the supreme leader, when he was the representative of the supreme leader in the Supreme National Security Council, was to thwart the threats and counter the conspiracies of the United States. According to Rouhani, the United States wanted for Iran what he claimed the United States had done to Libya. He insisted that while the United States wanted the regime’s knowledge in the nuclear field to remain incomplete and the regime to surrender all that technical knowledge, the regime was looking for an opportunity to complete this nuclear technology.
Rouhani was quite specific in saying that the day the regime invited the foreign ministers of Britain, France, and Germany to Tehran, only 10 centrifuges were spinning in the Natanz nuclear facility. He specifically said, "We could not produce even 1 gram of UF4 [uranium tetrafluoride] or UF6 [uranium hexafluoride]. We did not have heavy water. We could not produce yellowcake. Our production of centrifuges in the entire country totaled 150. We needed time."
Rouhani asserted that there were no agreements in Saadabad or in the Tehran negotiations. What resulted was called the Tehran Declaration. In the Tehran Declaration, the resolution was that everything should be halted. But Rouhani emphasized, "We did not allow it. We only halted productivity of those 10 centrifuges in Natanz."
Then Rouhani proceeded to boast:
We completed the UCF [Uranium Conversion Facility in Isfahan]. Do you know when it was inaugurated? We did the negotiations in October 2003. Do you know when the first phase of the UCF was inaugurated? April 2004. Do you know when the next phase was inaugurated? The fall of 2004. Do you know when it was completed? April 2005. Do you know when we started producing heavy water? The summer of 2004. Do you know when yellowcake was produced? In winter of 2004. Do you know when our centrifuges were increased to 3,000? The winter of 2004. We halted it?! We completed the technology! We created the opportunity! When I say ‘we,’ I mean the regime, not Hasan Rouhani. When I say ‘we,’ I mean the supreme leadership. It means all of us unified. This is what the leadership was talking about when he declared 12 days after the negotiations that the conspiracy of America and Israel has been shattered. We completed the nuclear technology, meaning we created the necessary opportunity [time] so that the UCF could be completed, UF4 could be produced, and UF6 could be produced. When I left my position [as chief nuclear negotiator], we had over 1,700 operating centrifuges; when I took the position we had 150.
After reciting his role in advancing the regime’s nuclear program, Rouhani addressed the major tasks he faces in 2013. He noted that the enemy (the United States) has taken the file to the U.N. Security Council. What needs to be done now? Rouhani said, "The [nuclear] file has to be removed from the U.N. Security Council [agenda]. The vicious sanctions have to be terminated. Today we need to negotiate not with ministers but with the heads of the five states [referring to permanent members of the U.N. Security Council]."
It is clear from Rouhani’s own statements and, as Ali Larijani, speaker of the Islamic Republic’s parliament, confirmed last week, that the Islamic Republic has no intention of changing its strategy and is only changing its tactics. The truth is that Rouhani shares former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s antagonism toward the United States and Israel, but has the political acumen not to publicize it. He has said once before, "The beautiful slogan of death to America has created unity in our nation [read within the regime]." Like Ahmadinejad, Rouhani has every intention to complete the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, but he intends to do so through deceit, not threats. Rouhani’s government is no more democratic and humanitarian than Ahmadinejad’s was. Executions continue apace; political prisoners are still tortured and remain in confinement; and religious minorities are still persecuted. The regime’s judiciary symbolically releases a few of its political prisoners in a token gesture to mask the oppression that still exists in Iran and to further contribute to the illusion that Rouhani is about to usher in a new, cooperative chapter in U.S.-Iran relations, a change in direction that Rouhani knows Obama greatly desires.
Let us not lose sight of the fact that the change in Tehran’s tactics we are witnessing is the result of one thing only — comprehensive sanctions on the Islamic Republic’s oil and gas industry that have emptied the coffers of Khamenei’s regime. It is fear of the regime’s own demise that has prompted Rouhani and his cabinet to appear moderate, charming, and humble, not concerned for the people of Iran whom they have called dirt and dust.
Rouhani’s self-proclaimed mission is to convince the West to lift the existing sanctions. To that end, he is authorized and prepared to offer sweet economic deals, the likes of which have not previously been offered to Western European companies. But make no mistake. Rouhani is not authorized or prepared to allow the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program to deviate from its intended path.
Continued steadfast bipartisan support in the U.S. House and Senate for more comprehensive sanctions against the Iranian regime, together with the support of America’s allies, offers the only hope of resolving the Iranian nuclear issue peacefully. Rep. Ed Royce, chairman of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appropriately reminded the Obama administration of the eerily similar situation with North Korea in September 2005. After a two-year standoff over North Korea’s nuclear program, in what was called at the time a "landmark" agreement, a preliminary agreement was signed by all parties. North Korea would end its pursuit of nuclear weapons, rejoin the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and readmit inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency. Other signatories would, in turn, provide security guarantees, energy infrastructure, and aid. In July 2006, North Korea conducted ballistic missile tests. In October 2006, it detonated a nuclear explosive device.
Let us operate under no illusions when dealing with the new face of the Iranian regime. When asked by reporters while he was in exile and powerless what kind of government he envisioned for Iran, Khomeini answered, "a democratic republic such as the one in France." After he had seized power in Iran, when he was reminded of this answer and the obvious dissimilarities between the Islamic Republic and the French government, Khomeini said, "Khoda’a kardam." Literal translation: "I deceived." Rouhani, himself a cleric, must be familiar with this term. "Khoda’a" means deception, and in Shiite terminology, whenever a priority or purpose supersedes the sin of lying and deceiving, then that deception, or khoda’a, is not only allowed but required. If Khomeini was the father of the Islamic Revolution, Rouhani is the legitimate son of the Islamic Revolution. As they say, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
G. William Heiser, a former official in Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council staff, is an advisor to the Iranian Freedom Institute and Confederation of Iranian Students.
Amir Abbas Fakhravar, a former political prisoner of the Iranian regime, is president of the Iranian Freedom Institute and secretary-general of the Confederation of Iranian Students. He is a research fellow and visiting lecturer at the Institute of World Politics, a graduate school of international affairs in Washington, D.C.