Guest Post: Rationalizing Rouhani by Rob Pinfold*

Once again, for those of us cursed with a compulsive thirst for Middle-Eastern news, Iran is the talk of the town.

Iranian President Hasan Rouhani’s recent speech at the United Nations General Assembly has reignited the debate regarding the appropriate strategic framework for dissuading Iran’s regime from pursuing uranium enrichment.

The ‘hawks’, desperate to maintain an uncompromising position vis-à-vis ‘The Iranian Threat’ immediately dismissed Rouhani’s speech as gesture politics, intended to sugar-coat the relentless march of a doom-mongering, fanatical regime towards a nuclear conflagration.

By contrast, the ‘doves’ seized upon Rouhani’s conciliatory dialogue to suggest that an ideological paradigm shift has finally taken place within the Iranian regime, empowering so-called ‘moderates’. The dovish engagement strategy has been stunted for many years, faced with the reality of bumbling incoherencies, racist fulminations and oft-stated desire by Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to ‘wipe Israel from the map’.

Quite simply, where there was Ahmadinejad, there is now Rouhani; finally, there is someone to talk to who appears sane and not bent on annihilating regional neighbors.

What both hawkish and dovish perspectives share is a deeply flawed analysis of the ‘paradigm shift’ taking place, prone to exaggerations and selective reading of historical events and current affairs.

Firstly, the Iranian regime is far from a deluded cabal of ‘mad mullahs’. The Iranian clerical leadership are a bigoted bunch; prone to executions of homosexuals, the desecration of women’s rights and shameless racism.

However, clinically insane, they are not.

My good friend Gabriel Mitchell duly notes that whilst Rouhani sounds conciliatory, it is really the Iranian ‘Supreme Leader’, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who pulls the strings in Iranian decision-making.

This is indeed correct, but it is critical to remember that Rouhani is in charge precisely because of Khamenei, not in spite of him.

Whilst Rouhani won the 15th June, 2013 Presidential election by a landslide, Iran is not a democracy; presidents are only appointed with the consent of the Supreme Leader. One needs only to hasten back to 2009, when the pragmatic language of reformist candidate Mir Housein Mousavi made him persona non grata with the Ayatollah, resulting in a blatantly rigged election.

Thus, Khamenei’s primacy makes the rise of Rouhani even more curious. Why would the ‘hard-line’ Ayatollah, who was happy to release violent, state-sponsored militias on his own people in 2009, suddenly display an inclination towards compromise?

The answer is simple. The strategic priority of the Iranian regime is the same as all authoritarian states: regime survival and power maximization.

Even when the Iranian government employed shocking violence, or sponsored brutal terrorist organizations, one only needs to scratch the surface to note the strategic rationale of these abhorrent acts.

Like all other policy issues, Iran’s headlong quest for nuclear weapons falls into this matrix of power-maximization and regime survival, rather than visions of a messianic apocalypse. An Iranian bomb, like a Soviet, Israeli or American bomb, ensures that antagonists would think twice before threatening the heart of the regime. It is within the rational decision-making framework that one can find the source of Khamenei’s policy retrenchment and strategic recalibration towards engagement with the West.

Rouhani is not ‘buying time’ for nuclear ambitions; his appointment was, like the nuclear program itself, intended to purchase the long-term stability and viability of the regime. Using a cost-benefit analysis, someone within the decision-making hierarchy decided that an abrasive stance vis-à-vis uranium enrichment was no longer producing its desired policy goals.

In short, sanctions are working.

The survival of the Iranian regime is conditional on its ability to govern and provide a living standard for its citizenry. Indubitably, state coercion and government-through-fear also plays a part, but Iranians, like any other human begins, cannot be beaten out of poverty or into employment.

Thus, this framing approach has some critical policy implications. Firstly, do not expect the arrival of Rouhani to engender a peaceful Iranian regime that tolerates gay rights and freedom of assembly. Even if these were his intentions, Khamenei is still very much in charge. Similarly, a softer tone on world affairs should not serve as carte blanche for the regime’s tendency to engage in domestic repression.

Secondly, whatever the Israeli government may claim, engaging with Iran on a rational cost-benefit, carrot and stick approach appears to be working to disincentive uranium enrichment. The question remains whether the West’s strategy should, or must, focus on curtailing nuclear ambitions, or be focused on a more normative goal of regime change through multilaterally-agreed sanctions.

Finally, don’t believe the hype, from either the hawks or the doves. The path to resolving Iran’s nuclear issue, and preventing the Iranian regime from maximizing its power, undermining Western deterrence and propelling a dangerous Middle-Eastern arms race is far from over. Neither Khamenei nor Rouhani are insane, but the Iranian regime remains a formidable threat.


*Rob holds a degree in Politics and Modern History from the University of Manchester and an MA in Terrorism, Security and Society from the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. He lives in Jerusalem, Israel, where he worked as an Israel Research Fellow, and is now a researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His work focuses on Israeli security, politics and the Israel-Palestine conflict. You can follow Rob on Twitter @RobPinfold


Posted on by Gabriel in Iran