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Rouhani’s Election Prospects Have Little Bearing on Iran’s Foreign Policy

Those elections were widely reported to be major victories for the faction associated with the current president and his colleague and former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. But commentators have expressed widely divergent assessments of what that victory means for the Islamic Republic of Iran and for its relations with the rest of the world. Some Western policymakers have attributed moderate political views to Rouhani, and many of these same people have expressed optimism that the recent elections have bolstered those trends and could lead to even more positive outcomes if Rouhani is reelected in 2017.

While these claims of moderation were arguably bolstered by the conclusion of nuclear negotiations with the US and five other world powers last summer, numerous other factors have been cited by Rouhani’s foreign critics and reformist opponents to dispute this narrative of moderation. These factors include both domestic conditions such as the rising level of executions, and also various instances of anti-Western propaganda and provocative foreign policy activities, which highlight the limited effects of the nuclear deal on Iranian-Western relations.

The Newsweek article appears to strike some degree of balance between the two perspectives. It acknowledges that Rouhani’s administration represents a substantively different approach to foreign policy, compared to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and other hardliners. However, it stops fall short of describing this as evidence of moderation, or of anything other than an alternative strategy in service of some of the same basic objectives.

In fact, Newsweek concludes by saying that “a key reason [Rouhani] is not generating more substantial opposition in Tehran is that he simply is not threatening the establishment.” This contributes to Newsweek’s conclusion that Rouhani’s prospects for reelection in the coming year are quite good at the moment, although they may still be negatively affected by organized support for a hardline challenger who prefers to set severe limits on Iran’s integration into global systems. But the article emphasizes that even if such a challenge does not materialize, Western policymakers should not expect Rouhani’s reelection to result in significant long-term changes.

This comparatively pessimistic outlook has garnered additional support in the wake of last month’s revelations about the Obama administration’s efforts to sell the Iran nuclear deal to Congress and the American people. This information has led to broader acceptance of the notion that the narrative of Rouhani’s moderation was constructed for the sake of political ends and never reflected realistic prospects for the future relationship between the Islamic Republic and the world community.

While the primary evidence of that conclusion remains a New York Times profile of White House Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, other pieces of information have since been highlighted alongside it, including the apparent fact that the Obama administration concealed details of a January incident in  which the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps seized 10 American sailors who had strayed into Iranian territorial waters.

On Friday, Fox News published an editorial regarding the classification of the official account of that incident. The article argues that in absence of a clear national security related rationale for such classification, it represents an abuse of power by the White House and a likely effort to suppress information that contradicts the narrative of Iranian moderation, a major selling point for the Iran nuclear deal.

Persons who have seen the full account of the incident have suggested that the extent of the mistreatment of US soldiers would shock the nation. The Fox News editorial points out that many are already shocked by what is publicly known, including the fact that the IRGC surrounded the sailors with automatic weapons and took photos of them kneeling with their hands behind their heads. These photos were repeatedly broadcast via Iranian media along with video of the sailors crying or being made to apologize. The propaganda use of these materials led some Western commentators to note that similar behavior during wartime would have constituted violations of the Geneva conventions.

This incident reflects an apparent general increase in anti-Western propaganda and deliberate provocations in the time since the conclusion of nuclear negotiations between the Rouhani and Obama governments. Other examples of the same include numerous interrogations and arrests of persons with dual citizenship or alleged connections to Western countries. Earlier this week it was widely reported that an Iranian-Canadian anthropology professor named Homa Hoodfar had joined the ranks of these arrestees. And on Friday the BBC issued an updated report on the case of Nazanin Zaghiri-Radcliffe, who was arrested in April while visiting family with her daughter.

The report emphasizes that the child recently had her second birthday while stranded in Iran in the care of her grandparents. Her mother remains in detention and has reportedly been made to sign a confession under duress, although no charges have actually been levied against her. The child’s passport was confiscated at the time of the arrest and her father remains in the United Kingdom, coordinating a campaign in which thousands of people sent birthday cards to the two year old Gabriella via their country’s Iranian embassies.

As these sorts of incidents continue to bolster criticism of the moderation narrative, they also encourage the purveyors of that criticism to suggest that recent Western policy toward Iran has actually had the effect of enabling more confrontational Iranian behavior. For example, the New York Post published an article on Friday saying that the Iranian military had been indirectly financed not only by unfrozen assets under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, but also by actual US taxpayer dollars.

The article points out that 1.7 billion dollars were given to the Islamic Republic in January as settlement of debts predating the Islamic Republic. Some accounts of this payment alleged that it actually served as a sort of ransom payment for American political prisoners who were released from Iran as part of a prisoner swap that same month. In any event, the New York Post says that it was initially unclear what would become of that money once in Iranian hands, but that the question was apparently answered when the regime directed the Central Bank of Iran to pay an identical sum to the Iranian military.

This sum contributed to a 90 percent increase in Iran’s defense spending between 2015 and 2016. The current year’s budget calls for 19 million dollars, which many Western critics clearly expect to facilitate ongoing aggression toward Western countries and their citizens inside the Islamic Republic.

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