Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, who formally succeeded his rabidly anti-Israel predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Sunday, has been oft described by mainstream media as a more moderate leader, even though his harshness toward advocates for change and his own recent statements about Israel are anything but. Rouhani could fairly be described as the “least hardline radical” among those who ran for the office of President of Iran, a position under the thumb of Iran’s official Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The very day before Rouhani took office, a New York Times story was headlined, “Iran’s President-Elect Provokes Furor Abroad With Remarks On Israel.” The report: “Attending an annual pro-Palestinian holiday in Iran known as Al Quds Day, a reference to the Arabic name for Jerusalem and an occasion in which Iranians march and shout ‘Death to Israel,’ Mr. Rouhani told state television that ‘a sore has been sitting on the body of the Islamic world for many years,’ a reference to Israel.”
The Times report contrasted Rouhani’s remarks (which drew a sharp rebuke from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) with the “most inflammatory anti-Israel invective sometimes heard from other Iranian leaders, most notably Mr. Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has called Israel a cancerous tumor, a virus and an aberration that should be expunged from history.” (For a good analysis of Rouhani’s words and how they were translated by the Iranian press service, see Jonathan Tobin’s Commentary piece cited at the bottom of this editorial.)
Despite his seeming willingness to continue Iran’s rabid anti-Israel stance, some have taken Rouhani as a voice of moderation for his willingness to raise issues of women’s rights internally and the prospect for nuclear talks externally. Not so Netanyahu, who said that while Ahmadinejad was a “wolf in wolf’s clothing,” it appears that Rouhani could be a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
It’s often hard to know the true sentiment of any Iranian leader as he attempts to straddle the worlds within and outside the country. Internally, spewing anti-Israel rhetoric is pretty much a condition of governance under the hate-based ayatollahs. That’s obviously not a justification, but the environment makes it truly difficult to assess any meaningful differences between political leaders. That’s why some are clinging hopefully to Rouhani’s words as being just slightly less abhorrent than those of Ahmadinejad.
Thus, it’s hard to know if Rouhani is simply placating the hard-liners or if he himself really harbors such hateful views. As always, it’s virtually impossible to ascertain if his persona represents true moderation and potential for dialogue with the West, or just a smiley-faced diversion to slow the West’s efforts to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
Moreover, even if Rouhani means to be a true moderate, how much authority does he have to carry out moderate policies? Even the viciously harsh Ahmadinejad was reprimanded by Khamenei at times when he seemed to be challenging the Supreme Leader’s ultimate authority.
The White House and United States State Department have said they welcome Rouhani’s professed moderation and are willing to test just how sincere he is through direct talks about the sanctions and Iran’s nuclear ambitions. It should become clear early in this process whether or not Rouhani is the real deal, imbued with authority to negotiate; a figurehead with good intent but no substance; or yet another strategy of a radical regime intended to lull the West into inaction on the nuclear front.
At this stage we are “cautiously pessimistic” that the more refined new Iranian president will be any better than his predecessor.