The profile credits Rhodes with helping to create that narrative, which portrayed the negotiations as a product of newfound moderation within the Iranian regime following the 2013 election of President Hassan Rouhani. This characterization of Rouhani as a moderate was buttressed by campaign promises related to civil rights and freedom of the press, but was quickly undermined by critics such as spokespersons for the National Council of Resistance of Iran, who saw Rouhani as a longstanding regime insider whose ideology and attitudes are broadly aligned with those of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
This dismissal of Rouhani’s supposed moderate credentials has been further justified during his three years in office by the evident lack of progress on any of the aforementioned campaign progress. Human rights organizations and the international media have at various times quoted former Rouhani supporters as saying that they had withdrawn their support following the election, as a result of the absence of expected reforms.
By most accounts, the sole exception to this pattern of reformist words without deeds was the nuclear agreement, which was largely negotiated between representatives of the Obama and Rouhani administrations, with additional input from the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China. Rouhani was generally credited with helping to see negotiations to their conclusion despite opposition from Khamenei, the ultimate authority in all Iranian affairs. However, in light of this authority, it was understood that Rouhani would not have been able to proceed with negotiations without the blessing of the supreme leader, even if it was only offered begrudgingly.
Now, the New York Times editorial threatens to undermine the notion that the so-called moderate president was a major driving force behind the nuclear deal. In its commentary on the story, the International Women’s Forum says that the “most meaningful part of the negotiations” began in mid-2012, about a year before Rouhani was elected. This implies that whatever political calculations Supreme Leader Khamenei made to justify newfound compromise in the nuclear sphere, it was made independent of any major moderating pressures from inside the government.
The American Thinker adds that the 2012 backroom negotiations were the result of President Obama’s preexisting commitment to a grand bargain with Iran. The profile of Ben Rhodes supposedly suggests that he and the president work in concert to shape a helpful narrative around that commitment, in order to justify the pursuit of an agreement and to more easily pass that agreement through the US Congress.
The American Thinker goes on to emphasize that this latter point is especially significant in light of the amount of difficulty that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action did in fact face at the stage of congressional approval. A resolution of disapproval was defeated despite majority opposition, as a result of Democrats exploiting filibuster rules. A handful of Democrats publicly joined the entirety of the Republican Party in opposing the deal. These facts strongly suggest that the agreement would have been defeated by US legislators if it had been supported by a weaker narrative regarding changes in US-Iran relations.
Now that Obama’s and Rhodes’ supposed manipulation of public sentiment has been revealed, it cannot directly impact the ongoing enforcement of the JCPOA. But the information will almost certainly be utilized by the Republican Party, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, and other staunch critics of the Iranian regime to further support the argument that Rouhani does not represent a trend toward moderation within that regime.
All indications are that this argument will also continue to be buttressed on the Iranian side by statements and activities that demonstrate continuation of much of the same behavior that had caused Iran to be a subject of such skepticism for Western policymakers. Many journalists and commentators have observed that anti-American rhetoric from Khamenei and other hardliners has only intensified in the wake of the nuclear agreement. What’s more, the Rouhani administration has joined in some of that rhetoric, as when the president himself ordered Defense Minister Hossein Dehqan to ramp up the Iranian ballistic missile program in defiance of calls for restraint from the US and others.
Recently, Brigadier General Hossein Salami, the deputy commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps struck a similarly defiant note on the issue of the American presence in the Persian Gulf, saying that Iran would close off the Strait of Hormuz in response to theoretical “threats” from the US. On Friday, Voice of America news reported that the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet had responded to this threat by accompanying commercial vessels through the strait. But this response was short-lived, and it is not clear whether the quick end to this practice was ordered out of concerns about antagonizing Iran or simply because the US and its allies do not take such threats seriously.
Certainly, as Voice of America points out, Iran lacks the naval strength to enforce such a closure, even though it makes similar threats on a recurring basis. This recurrence is likely directed at a domestic audience, and it is accompanied by frequent proclamations of Iran’s supposed military strength and readiness for war. A number of public statements to this effect were made last month on the occasion of the country’s Army Day, when military officials claimed, for instance, that a tank based on technology from the mid-20th century was as good as advanced Russian tanks that the Islamic Republic has been seeking to purchase.
Bolstering this same rhetoric, Iran is keen to claim victory over the US, as it did in January when 10 US sailors who had strayed into Iranian territorial waters were seized at gunpoint by the IRGC. Although the sailors were released within one day, Iranian state media broadcast images of the incident for weeks afterward. The IRGC officers involved were given Iran’s highest military awards, and the regime has plans to build a statue commemorating it.
The Strait of Hormuz threat gives Tehran a similar opportunity to present itself as a viable adversary to the West. An article that appeared at Business Insider on Friday claimed that this and similar threats are made for two main reasons: to bolster oil prices and “simply to exploit American weakness.” The article suggests that the regime sees particular opportunities to pursue the latter goal in the wake of nuclear negotiations. As the Ben Rhodes profile highlights, those negotiations are arguably indicative of the Obama administration being committed to reconciliation with Iran regardless of the current nature of its governance and foreign policy activities.