June 17, 2013 | The New York Times

Rowhani Is a Tool of Iran’s Rulers

The odds are poor that the election of Hassan Rowhani to the presidency will change Iranian society or diminish the power of the supreme leader Ali Khamenei and his praetorians, the Revolutionary Guards, who now effectively control the Iranian economy and oversee the regime’s nuclear program and its terrorist and covert-action operations overseas. Rowhani, who has since the revolution been in the shadow of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former über-corrupt major-domo of the ruling clergy, is a well-known commodity.

Unlike his patron, who has been in an increasingly nasty duel with Khamenei since 2005, Rowhani didn’t really protest the crackdown on the pro-democracy Green Movement in 2009, and was enthusiastic in his praise of the crackdown on pro-democracy Tehran University students in 1999. In all probability, Rowhani supported Rafsanjani’s and Khamenei’s assassination of internal and external dissidents in the 1990s and other terrorist operations in Latin America, Europe and against the United States in Khobar, Saudi Arabia in 1996. Unlike former president Mohammad Khatami, whose election in 1997 convulsed the ruling elite, Rowhani has shown no intellectual signs that he’s reflected on the collision of Islam and the West, the legitimacy of popular sovereignty, or theocracy in the Shi’ite tradition — and this from a cleric who supposedly has a Ph.D. in constitutional law from some university in Scotland (exactly where isn’t clear).

What Rowhani is preeminently is a factotum of whoever holds power. For over 20 years that meant he owed his allegiance to Rafsanjani; since Rafsanjani’s fall in 2009, Rowhani has kept his head above water, no doubt by letting the supreme leader know that he remains faithful to the power structure that Khamenei commands. There is a small chance that Rowhani may now show some spine in defense of the man who made him; however, Rafsanjani has shown consistently little loyalty to his “friends,” so it wouldn’t be surprising to see Rowhani ditch his former boss.

It would be more than a little surreal to see the new president champion ideas that he’s spent most of his revolutionary life ignoring or crushing. Hope springs eternal, of course, which is one reason why so many Iranians, who have consistently shown their disgust for Khamenei, would vote for such a dubious man. In an awful field of candidates, he was a means of expressing displeasure. Even a quondam servant of my enemy’s enemy deserves a ballot in the Islamic Republic.

Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former case officer in the C.I.A., is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He is the author of “Know Thine Enemy: A Spy's Journey into Revolutionary Iran,'' “The Islamic Paradox: Shiite Clerics, Sunni Fundamentalists, and the Coming of Arab Democracy,” and “The Wave: Man, God, and the Ballot Box in the Middle East.”


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