For several days after the election of Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s new president, advocates of engagement with Tehran couldn’t stop smiling. Jack Straw, the former British foreign secretary, praised Rouhani as “straightforward and pragmatic to deal with” and expressed hope that the tortuous saga of Iran’s nuclear ambitions would “have a happy ending.” A New York Times editorial solemnly concluded that a rare opportunity to reach a deal over Iran’s nuclear program was now at hand, cautioning that President Obama would have his work cut out dissuading potential spoilers—such as “congressional leaders and Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel”—from raising objections.
It’s understandable, if not quite excusable, that the engagement camp is positively joyous at the thought of using the words “moderate,” “pragmatic,” and “Iran” in the same sentence. Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was always a thorn in the side of those who consider Iran what international relations scholars call a “rational actor.” To cynics, he was a gift that kept on giving, someone who could be faithfully relied upon to say something outrageous—denying the Holocaust, threatening Israel with annihilation—just when everyone else was quietly waiting for a breakthrough.
But does the engagement camp have a point, or is it, as a decidedly less sanguine Iranian friend of mine told me in an email, full of “half-wit mullah lovers”?
The expectation that Rouhani will become an Iranian version of Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader whose far-reaching reforms contributed to the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union, is certain to persist. After all, the hunger for political change inside Iran is as palpable as it was during the last days of the Soviet empire, as is the worsening economic outlook.
The strategic context, however, couldn’t be more different. The bloodbath in Syria, in which Iran and its Lebanese Islamist ally Hezbollah have rushed to support the bestial dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, offers inescapable proof that the conflict in the Middle East is less a confrontation with Israel and the United States than it is a civil war between the majority Sunni and minority Shiite streams of Islam. To posit that Shiite Iran would, with this epic struggle in the background, abandon its carefully calibrated nuclear ambiguity simply because Rouhani comports himself with more dignity than Ahmadinejad is the stuff of fairy tales.
Remember: Rouhani has not called on Assad to step down, in marked contrast to most Western and Arab states, nor has he expressed any reservations about Assad’s crimes against humanity. Even if he does quietly harbor doubts, expressing them would risk the ire of Iran’s top military brass and the country’s Supreme Leader—and ultimate authority—Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose support for Assad is unflinching.
That’s one reason why, to my mind, there’s a strong possibility that hailing Rouhani as a moderate will backfire spectacularly. Rouhani, after all, is a regime man through and through. Given Iran’s stringent rules on qualifying for public office—out of more than 600 candidates for the presidency, only eight made it to the ballot—he couldn’t be anything else.
Consider, as well, Rouhani’s career trajectory. Rouhani was an early confidant of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic. After the 1979 revolution, he served in a variety of prominent positions, many of them concerned with national security. Western diplomats know Rouhani because, from 2003 until Ahmadinejad’s first term as president in 2005, he was Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator.
But the man dubbed by some obsequious admirers as the “diplomat sheikh” was tasked with sowing doubts about Iran’s intentions on the nuclear front while the United States and its allies were tied up with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. His appointment as nuclear negotiator followed the revelation that Iran had been clandestinely developing a nuclear program whose ostensibly “peaceful purposes” were the subject of severe doubts on the part of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In a 2006 speech to fellow clerics, Rouhani bragged about how the Iranians had continued work on the regime’s uranium conversion facility in Isfahan—built with the assistance of the Chinese and the North Koreans—while negotiating with the Europeans. In the same address, he confessed that the Iranians were worried that providing a “complete picture” of their nuclear activities would lead to a fraught debate at the UN Security Council.
Since his election, Rouhani has repeated the mantra that Iran’s nuclear program is entirely peaceful, declaring, “The nation will only be happy when we neutralize the plots of the U.S. We will protect the nuclear technology alongside any other technology.” Essentially, Rouhani wants us to believe that Iran’s nuclear program is benign simply because he says so. Yet he has given no indication that he will permit the IAEA to thoroughly inspect the nuclear facilities, nor has he even hinted whether Iran will reveal additional secret nuclear installations, such as the underground uranium enrichment plant at Fordow that was exposed by the U.S., British, and French intelligence agencies in 2009.
And, even if he did consider such a step, he would risk alienating both the military and Supreme Leader Khamenei, who recognizes the advantage of having a president perceived by the outside world as a reformist, but who will certainly not permit him to do anything that would irreparably compromise Iran’s strategic position in the tempestuous Middle East.
Put another way: Mr. Rouhani, you’re no Gorbachev.
This article originally appeared in Moment magazine’s July/August issue. Moment magazine is an independent bimonthly of politics, culture, and religion, co-founded by Nobel Prize laureate Elie Wiesel. For more go to momentmag.com.