From the day of his election on June 14th 2013 President Hassan Rouhani was the smiling and moderate face of Iran to the world who preached for “constructive engagement” with the West in order to reach a nuclear deal and lift the sanctions. As far as all were concerned, Rouhani was single-handedly defuisng a 35 year old bomb with the blessing of his Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
But since then, on two specific dates, June 23ed (Khamenei issues “red lines” to negotiators) 2015 and then October 21st 2015 (Khamenei pens “red lines” letter to Rouhani), he suspiciously seems to have been fulfilling his role as the “good cop” to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s “bad cop”: Khamenei allowed Rouhani to take front-stage in order to clinch a deal which would lift the crippling and humiliating sanctions but once that was attained, he was expediently demoted to the back stage.
The window of opportunity that Rouhani’s election promised is shutting down rapidly and the world will have to get used to dealing, once again, with a martyr-loving revolutionary instead of a reasonable and pragmatic diplomat.
Rouhani Enters Center Stage
Rouhani’s smiling demeanor represented a stark change from his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the West embraced him with open arms. During this time, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei seemed to have taken a back seat and allowed Rouhani to be his trusted guide in the foreign terrain of international negotiations. He offered Rouhani his quiet support, keeping the hardliners back home at bay and significantly toned down his anti-West rhetoric.
Rouhani’s moderate image improved dramatically as he championed the fight against terrorism through his War Against Violence and Extremism (WAVE) initiative which was enthusiastically adopted by the UN and which brilliantly changed Iran’s reputation from being an avid and active supporter of terrorism to being the leading fighter against ISIS and all other forms of terrorism. This repositioning allowed Tehran to claim legitimacy for its military actions in the region, actions that included supporting terrorist militias such as Hezbollah in Syria and in Yemen and the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Iran, within two short years had been rebranded and the flood of foreign (specially EU) delegations into Tehran was a clear testament to the fact that Iran had successfully extricated itself from isolation.
During this time, Rouhani even managed to bypass the thorny issues of human rights and social reforms which he had promised to change during his election campaign but which had gotten worst during his presidency: Rouhani made a point of occasionally voiced his opinions against gender discrimination, against the imprisonment of journalists etc…but he never really acted on these issues. He didn’t really have to because, despite his failures in internal affairs, the promise of a nuclear deal facilitated by Rouhani’s foreign policy was perceived by the West, and by most of the Iranian people, as Iran’s best chance for a positive change.
Cue in Khamenei
This idealistic situation began to turn on June 23ed 2015 when Khamenei issued his “red lines” regarding the upcoming deal to both sides of the negotiations table. But as the details of the JCPoA which was signed on July 14th 2015 came to light, it became painfully obvious to all that some of Khamenei’s “red lines” had been crossed.
The hardliners at home immediately went on to attack the deal and even the deal-maker himself, Zarif, admitted that the deal had crossed some “red lines”, most significantly these:
- All sanctions would have to be lifted immediately: The JCPoA states a gradual lifting of sanctions dependent on implementation of the deal by Iran.
- Enrichment for the purposes of R&D would be unrestricted: The JCPoA allows for limited enrichment beyond the required 3.5% under supervision.
- IAEA inspectors could not visit non-nuclear sites such as the Parchin military base: The JCPoA expressly empowers the IAEA to visit any site deemed necessary.
Despite the “weaknesses” of the nuclear deal, Rouhani and Zarif kept on riding the waves of their success: the UN and the EU lifted their sanctions, the open and active support of Moscow, the trade delegations from the Western countries, the growing isolation of the US and Saudi Arabia…all pointed to the fact that even without a signed deal, Rouhani’s foreign policy had been a massive success.
For the next few months, hardliners in Tehran and Republicans in Washington tried to scuttle the deal and it appeared that there were two distinct voices emanating from Tehran: the voice of the revolutionary Khamenei and the voice of the diplomat Rouhani. In Washington, President Barak Obama went on a limb and after threatening to veto Congress, managed to get the deal ratified. In Tehran, Khamenei took a less positive stance: he continued to support the deal passively support but a) he allowed the hardliners to bash and criticize Rouhani, Zarif and the deal and b) he contradicted Rouhani’s demands to keep the deal out of a vote in parliament. On October 12th 2015,
the deal was finally ratified in Tehran in a close vote (139 in favor, 100 against and 12 abstained) and the JCPoA became a binding reality.
Khamenei Back on Center Stage
But Khamenei wasn’t ready to let go and on October 21st 2015, he penned an open letter to Rouhani, reinstating his red lines for the implementation of the deal – red lines which, in some cases, are in direct contradiction to the JCPoA itself. The cheers from the hardliners in Tehran could be heard around the globe and the very next day, Rouhani answered Khamenei’s letter with profuse thanks and submission to Khamenei’s demands. Zarif’s own statement of submission quickly followed and suddenly there were two nuclear deals: the one signed by Zarif and ratified in parliament and the one that Khamenei demanded.
As far as Khamenei was concerned, the whole issue of a nuclear deal was meant to change the West’s behavior (ie: lift all the sanctions) without changing one iota of the nuclear program which he claimed would never be used to create nuclear weapons.
Since then, Khamenei has visibly returned to the spotlight and Rouhani, and Zarif, has been demoted to becoming Khamenei’s “yes-man”. Khamenei resumed his aggressive rhetoric towards the US to a level reminiscent of the Ahmadinejad era and was echoed by other prominent leaders such as Mohammad Jafari, the commander of the IRGC. even on issues such as Syria, Khamenei set the tone.
Some might scoff and say that Khamenei never really let go of the reins and they are probably right: Khamenei is an astute leader and he was probably biding his time. Whether Rouhani was in the know and simply playing a part will not be known in the near future.
What is certain is that Rouhani’s ability to bring about positive changes in Iran has diminished drastically: The nuclear deal seems to be doomed to failure since at some time in the future, the JCPoA guidelines will clash with Khamenei’s red lines. Khamenei’s open hatred for the US is bound to strike a nerve at some time or another in Washington. Abuses of human rights are on the rise in Iran and Khamenei is making sure that no one can do anything about it.