Elephants in the Room
Rouhani, the Deceiver
Make no mistake: the Iranian president is no moderate. He's a wolf in sheep's clothing — and the Trump administration needs to bring him down.
In two months’ time — on May 19, to be exact — Iran will hold presidential elections. As things currently stand, odds are that the incumbent, Hassan Rouhani, will win a second term. Though attacked by internal critics on both the right and left, no serious contender has yet stepped forward to challenge his re-election. For U.S. policymakers, two questions naturally arise: Do we have a stake in Rouhani’s success and should U.S. policy be tailored to boost his chances — or, at the very least, avoid hurting them?
Whether they’d admit it or not, the Obama administration’s answers were clear. President Barack Obama saw moderates and hardliners engaged in a meaningful struggle for control of the Islamic Republic. Moderates led by Rouhani were no sweethearts, to be sure. But they understood the imperative of ending sanctions, engaging the world economy, and de-escalating Iran’s confrontation with America and the West — first and foremost by curtailing its nuclear program.
The bottom line for the Obamians? Rouhani and his ilk were people that America could do business with. The prior administration believed there was a clear interest in strengthening them against regime hardliners who were committed to unceasing conflict and nuclear escalation.
From this fundamental premise, a parade of U.S. concessions naturally followed. Permit Iran to keep enriching uranium? Yes. Allow continued R&D on advanced centrifuges? Yes again. Agree that the mullahs shouldn’t be compelled to fess up about past efforts to develop nuclear weapons? Naturally — no need to embarrass Rouhani and give hardliners a stick to beat him with. Front-load billions of dollars in sanctions relief, including secret deals to pay cash for hostages? Certainly — the moderates must show they can deliver real benefits. Take a pass on seriously confronting Iran’s escalating bid for regional hegemony? An unfortunate, but necessary trade-off. Doing otherwise might give the hardliners an excuse to walk away from the nuclear deal.
Of course, Obama’s critics had a much different take on Rouhani and the politics of the Islamic Republic. In their version, factions within the regime butted heads over means, not ends. Rouhani, himself, has been a longstanding, loyal servant of the theocracy. For decades, he’s been a leading member of Iran’s most important national security body; indeed, he served as its leader throughout the 1990s and early 2000s — a period marred by terrorist atrocities in Buenos Aires and Saudi Arabia, the assassination of dissidents in Europe, the crushing of student protests at home, and, don’t forget, the launch of a full-blown covert effort to acquire nuclear weapons.
That’s the same nuclear program that, by Rouhani’s own admission, he saved from international sanction in 2003 and 2004 when serving as the regime’s chief negotiator with key European powers. Indeed, prior to his election as president in 2013, Rouhani bragged publicly that he’d walked “hand in hand” with the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to deceive the West while advancing Iran’s mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle. In Rouhani’s telling, while agreeing in 2003 to Europe’s demand that Iran suspend its nuclear program, in reality “we did not let that happen.” Rejecting the accusation that he was responsible for halting Iran’s nuclear progress, Rouhani proudly insisted that “We were the ones to complete it. We completed the technology…. This is how we completed the nuclear enrichment program.”
In his 2011 memoir, Rouhani was quite explicit about the playbook that he had used to pull the wool over the West’s eyes. “While we were talking to the Europeans in Tehran,” he acknowledged, “we were installing equipment in Isfahan” — a key nuclear facility where Iran now converts uranium ore into an enrichable form. “By creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work at Isfahan.”
Not for nothing, then, has Rouhani earned the title of the “Diplomat Sheikh.” Through engagement, soothing rhetoric, and well-timed tactical concessions he succeeded in masterfully hoodwinking Western diplomats to preserve both Iran’s nuclear program and its economy. With that kind of track record, is it any wonder that suspicion runs high today that Rouhani has done it yet again with 2015’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — Obama’s preferred narrative of moderates vs. hardliners notwithstanding.
The nuclear deal’s results certainly align with that interpretation. In exchange for a series of temporary restrictions on elements of its nuclear program, the JCPOA legitimized Iran’s possession of the complete fuel cycle. While waiting for these constraints to lapse, the deal allows Iran to conduct R&D to fill one of the most critical gaps in its nuclear technology — the perfection of highly advanced centrifuges (so-called IR-8s) capable of rapidly enriching large quantities of uranium in short order. As the deal’s various sunset clauses fall away over the next decade and a half, these advanced centrifuges can be deployed in unlimited numbers in a nuclear program of unbounded size and scope.
Beyond the alarming implications for the future of Iran’s nuclear program, the nuclear deal is littered with other concessions that virtually guarantee that the Islamic Republic will be a far more formidable adversary down the line — including large-scale sanctions relief and the eventual lifting of bans on Iran’s procurement of conventional weapons (in 2020) and nuclear-designed ballistic missile activities (in 2023). Allowed to run its course over the next 10 to 15 years, the JCPOA portends a rather ominous future for anyone who really cares to see: An unreconstructed Islamic Republic boasting not only a highly advanced, industrial-size nuclear infrastructure, but a far richer, more resilient economy; a vastly stronger conventional military; and a ballistic missile arsenal — already the largest in the Middle East — free to expand even further, including by developing ICBMs capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to the United States.
Of course, all that’s in the future. But in the present, the results of Rouhani’s diplomatic handiwork have hardly been more promising for the West. Under cover of the JCPOA, Iran’s non-nuclear aggression has gone into overdrive since 2015. To wit: A dramatic escalation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) interference in Syria and Yemen. More than a dozen tests of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles in defiance of U.N. admonitions. U.S. naval vessels repeatedly put at risk by Iranian speed boats. U.S. sailors taken captive and humiliated on Iranian TV. More dual Iranian-American nationals unjustly imprisoned. And execution rates — of dissidents, gays, children, religious and ethnic minorities — at their highest level in decades.
Here, then, is the harsh reality of what Rouhani’s presidency has actually wrought. This is no moderate mullah struggling against the hardline powers-that-be to achieve some kind of long-term modus vivendi with the Great Satan. On the contrary, this is a long-serving mandarin of a rabidly anti-American theocracy, called upon at a moment of great economic and geopolitical stress to reprise his award-winning role from 2003 by charming the Western barbarians into backing off, buying the Islamic Republic the breathing space it needs to press ahead with its hegemonic ambitions.
From this perspective, the question of America’s stake in Rouhani’s reelection takes on a far different cast. If he’s not the last best hope for U.S.-Iranian reconciliation that Obama’s infamous echo chamber made him out to be, but rather a diplomatic snake charmer deployed by the Supreme Leader and the IRGC to more effectively pursue their revisionist agenda, it’s hard to see how Rouhani’s success actually serves U.S. interests.
On the contrary, to the extent that Rouhani’s true mission has been to anesthetize the West to the threat posed by the Islamic Republic and fracture its unity of response, a strong case exists that countering Iran would be made easier by his departure from the political scene. If the concern is with ensuring that the United States and its allies take the necessary steps in a timely manner to protect their interests, probably better to face the wolf itself than the wolf in sheep’s clothing.
For the Trump administration, that means at a minimum taking action to demonstrate to the Islamic Republic’s two most powerful political actors, the Supreme Leader and the IRGC, that their Rouhani ruse is up. His diplomatic fan dance has effectively shielded their expanding aggression from renewed Western political, economic, and military pressure. The Trump team should make clear that that game is now over. At which point, the Supreme Leader and the IRGC may well determine that the utility of Rouhani’s presidency has run its course as well.
Operationally, a number of useful initiatives could be taken in advance of Iran’s elections to underscore such a shift in U.S. policy:
Re-impose sanctions on Khamenei’s personal business empire. The Execution of Imam Khomeini’s Order (aka EIKO) is a giant parastatal directly controlled by the Supreme Leader, estimated to have close to $95 billion in holdings. The JCPOA effectively lifted all sanctions on EIKO, clearing the way for it to engage in billions of dollars of prospective new business ventures and investments. But nothing in the nuclear deal prohibits Washington from reimposing sweeping sanctions on EIKO as a result of Khamenei’s responsibility for all of Iran’s non-nuclear transgressions, including its ballistic missile program, support for terrorism, and massive violations of human rights.
Sanction the IRGC’s business empire. The IRGC may control as much as 20 percent of Iran’s economy. That includes hundreds of companies across virtually every major economic sector. Thanks to the JCPOA, billions of dollars in unfrozen assets, oil revenues, and hostage payments have flooded back into Iran, disproportionately benefiting the IRGC and its businesses. Nothing in the nuclear deal bars Washington from targeting the IRGC for its leading role in Iran’s missile program, support for terrorism, regional aggression, and human rights abuses. If the Trump administration chose to act, the U.S. Treasury, today, has both the authority and the evidence it needs to undertake a mass designation of IRGC-controlled front companies and their managers, striking a decisive blow against the organization’s economic and political interests.
Confront IRGC regional aggression. Fearful of jeopardizing the nuclear deal, the Obama administration largely stood aside as the IRGC Qods Force escalated its destabilizing activities across the Middle East — from overt military intervention in Syria, Iraq and Yemen to covert interference against U.S. allies like Bahrain and dangerous maneuvers against U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf. In addition to economic sanctions, Washington — unilaterally and in cooperation with its local allies — should begin seriously raising the political and military costs of the IRGC’s bid for regional supremacy.
Cancel the Boeing and Airbus deals. In the JCPOA’s aftermath, Iran Air concluded large contracts to purchase close to 200 new civilian airliners from Boeing and Airbus. Rouhani has hailed the deals as a major accomplishment of his nuclear diplomacy, a critical breakthrough that will pave the way for the large-scale return of Western business to Iran. However, Iran Air continues flying to Syria, and suspicions run high that, on behalf of the IRGC, it has ferried weapons and fighters to fuel the Assad regime’s war crimes, not to mention Hezbollah’s terrorist arsenal. The Trump administration should immediately take action to suspend the Boeing and Airbus contracts pending an intelligence review of Iran Air’s activities since the JCPOA was signed, and — if the evidence warrants — cancel the deal outright.
The Trump administration’s message to Khamenei and the IRGC in the lead up to Iran’s elections should be clear: Rouhani’s presidency will no longer serve as a get-out-of-jail-free pass for their escalating aggression. The moderate vs. hardliner narrative that the Islamic Republic so successfully peddled to a credulous West has lost all currency. Contrary to the Obamians most fervent wishes, Rouhani is not the progenitor of the theocracy’s eventual transformation, but the wily instrument of its survival and regeneration. That was certainly true in 2003 and, unfortunately, true again in 2015. It’s now up to President Trump to make sure that we won’t be fooled again.
Photo credit: ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
John Hannah is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, focusing on U.S. strategy. During the presidency of George W. Bush, he served for eight years on the staff of Vice President Cheney, including as the vice president's national security advisor.