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Iranian Election Reflections (Part 3)

Editor’s note: This post is the third in a three-part series on Iran’s recent presidential election. Click here for the first post and here for the second post. As others have noted, the fact that Hasan Rouhani’s overwhelming victory in Iran’s presidential election may not have been Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s preferred outcome is a ...

By , a senior fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America and a former national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney.
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

Editor's note: This post is the third in a three-part series on Iran's recent presidential election. Click here for the first post and here for the second post.

As others have noted, the fact that Hasan Rouhani's overwhelming victory in Iran's presidential election may not have been Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's preferred outcome is a far cry from saying that it's likely to lead to major changes in Iranian policy on key national security issues. As outlined in my first post on the election, for many powerful reasons -- especially the commanding role that the hard-line Khamenei and his Revolutionary Guard allies will continue to play in all such decisions -- the prospect for any real breakthrough on the nuclear question must be considered slim. Rouhani's post-election declaration that any renewed suspension of uranium enrichment is out of the question certainly bolsters that assumption.

It's far more likely, it would seem, that Khamenei seeks to make the best out of the situation he has been handed by having Rouhani reprise his starring role from a decade ago -- the smiling, pragmatic "diplomat sheikh" who uses protracted negotiations to lull and divide the West, ease Iran's political and economic isolation, and buy precious time for the nuclear program's continued progress. While the United States should of course remain open to a more genuine shift in Iran's position, it would be folly to expect it, much less make preemptive concessions to encourage it in some misguided effort to "strengthen" Rouhani.

Editor’s note: This post is the third in a three-part series on Iran’s recent presidential election. Click here for the first post and here for the second post.

As others have noted, the fact that Hasan Rouhani’s overwhelming victory in Iran’s presidential election may not have been Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s preferred outcome is a far cry from saying that it’s likely to lead to major changes in Iranian policy on key national security issues. As outlined in my first post on the election, for many powerful reasons — especially the commanding role that the hard-line Khamenei and his Revolutionary Guard allies will continue to play in all such decisions — the prospect for any real breakthrough on the nuclear question must be considered slim. Rouhani’s post-election declaration that any renewed suspension of uranium enrichment is out of the question certainly bolsters that assumption.

It’s far more likely, it would seem, that Khamenei seeks to make the best out of the situation he has been handed by having Rouhani reprise his starring role from a decade ago — the smiling, pragmatic "diplomat sheikh" who uses protracted negotiations to lull and divide the West, ease Iran’s political and economic isolation, and buy precious time for the nuclear program’s continued progress. While the United States should of course remain open to a more genuine shift in Iran’s position, it would be folly to expect it, much less make preemptive concessions to encourage it in some misguided effort to "strengthen" Rouhani.

On the contrary, it seems quite obvious that, if anything, the election has vindicated America’s tough approach on sanctions. Admittedly, they appear to have done little so far to slow down the technical progress that Iran’s nuclear program has made. But they have clearly succeeded in stoking a tremendous degree of discontent with the regime’s policies among a significant portion of the population. Again, a main theme of Rouhani’s campaign was his critique of Iran’s hard-line approach toward the nuclear question. Here, he drew more or less a straight line between Khamenei’s preferred strategy of resistance and the imposition of sanctions that are inflicting great pain on the Iranian people. There may have been the occasional perfunctory reference to unjust Western economic pressure, but the dominant motif left no doubt that the main culprit Iranians should blame for their present dire circumstances is the regime itself. Rouhani’s overwhelming victory provided the most striking evidence yet that that is exactly what they’re doing.

Admittedly, that kind of popular disaffection may in the end not be sufficient to alter Khamenei’s determination to plow forward and get the bomb. But it shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand as irrelevant either. Khamenei’s fear of his own people and the prospect that the Islamic Republic could be brought down by the sort of velvet revolution that transformed the Soviet bloc is well known. The election revealed that in the battle to shape the internal Iranian narrative over the nuclear standoff, the supreme leader appears to be getting clobbered. The West’s apparent success in using sanctions to fuel Iranians’ anger against the regime, as well as its ability to further ratchet up the threat of domestic turmoil should Iran’s intransigence continue, constitutes a lurking danger to Khamenei’s rule that he is surely cognizant of. This constitutes real leverage that should certainly not be prematurely squandered.

More broadly and perhaps most importantly, the election once again exposed the ever-widening chasm that exists between the Iranian people and the Islamic Republic. That is truly the big strategic revelation that the United States should take away from Rouhani’s victory. Given half a chance to register their contempt for the regime and its policies, Iranians grabbed it. Restricted to a choice between bad and worse, they once more made clear that they will opt every time for the path that holds out the greatest promise, however faint, of more democracy, freedom, and human rights, as well as the rehabilitation of Iran’s good name within the community of civilized nations. It’s not hard at all to imagine that were they ever given a genuinely free choice to rid themselves lock, stock, and barrel of Ruhollah Khomeini’s destructive experiment in theocratic tyranny, the Iranian people would jump on it.

Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard have worked tirelessly the past four years to crush that popular yearning for change. If one judges by many of the pre-election predictions, too many Western observers cynically believed they’d succeeded. As I’ve argued earlier, in quite resounding fashion the outcome of the actual vote suggested otherwise. Against all odds, the wellspring of hope for democratic transformation and the desire to escape the outlaw status, shame, and isolation inflicted on their great nation by an increasingly despotic regime remains alive and well in the Iranian people.

However the current nuclear impasse plays out, figuring out how to tap into that powerful current in the Iranian body politic should, at long last, become a major element of U.S. policy. For more than a decade, proposals to develop, resource, and implement a long-term strategy to support Iranian reformers have gone nowhere inside the U.S. government. As often as not, the excuse has been that the clock of democratic change is moving too slowly to impact the more urgent nuclear issue — and therefore little time or energy should be devoted to it.

That seems badly misguided on at least two counts. First, in retrospect (and thanks in part to Western counterproliferation efforts), the worst-case fears about how quickly Iran would get the bomb were thankfully not realized. The timetable has ended up being more drawn out than many expected. So it’s worth asking: How much better positioned would the United States be today if a systematic effort had been put in place in 2002 to cultivate and strengthen those in Iran seeking real change? Would the United States have been better able to benefit from the large anti-regime demonstrations of 2003 and 2009, or the unexpected (anti-regime) vote for Rouhani in 2013? And how much better situated will the United States be 10 years from now to advance its interests if the U.S. government starts putting such programs in place today?

A second mistake has been to view U.S. support for Iranian reformers largely in utilitarian terms vis-à-vis the nuclear issue. The fact is that whatever happens in the short term on the nuclear front, it’s highly likely that the long-term shadow war that the Islamic Republic has been waging against U.S. interests for more than three decades will continue. It’s part of the regime’s DNA, essential to its raison d’être and strategy for survival. As was true in the case of Soviet communism more than two decades ago, it is almost certainly the case with respect to the Islamic Republic today: A stable, mutually constructive equilibrium in relations will likely only be possible in the wake of the theocracy’s eventual demise and democratic transformation. Millions in Iran seek to hasten that day. America has a profound national interest in helping them. It needs to get about the long-overdue business of developing a serious, sustained strategy for doing so.

Skeptics will insist, of course, that it’s all a waste of time. The regime is too strong, the reformers too weak. Perhaps. But I’d be more convinced if a lot of those same people hadn’t just predicted with such high confidence that the Iranian election would be a foregone conclusion, a farcical sideshow masterfully manipulated from beginning to end by the supreme leader, resulting in the fraudulent selection of one of his preferred loyalists and the consolidation of his absolute authority. They were wrong, and it’s worth asking ourselves why (though few, unfortunately, really do). Perhaps they lost sight of the fact that however much the regime seeks to obliterate it, the Iranian people, literally, still have a vote. And they voted no. That might well not be enough to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem today, but properly engaged and nourished, it may one day prove enough to resolve America’s Iran problem.

John Hannah is a senior fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America and a former national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney.

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