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September 30, 2014 / 6 Tishri, 5775
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Is Rohani a Moderate Game-Changer or a Diversion?

Rohani’s election positions the regime to cater – superficially – to reform-minded voters in Iran, while improving Iran’s prospects in international negotiations.
The media outlets hailing the election of Hassan Rohani, the “moderate,” are the same outlets that consider the Tea Parties in America to be “radical.”

The media outlets hailing the election of Hassan Rohani, the “moderate,” are the same outlets that consider the Tea Parties in America to be “radical.”
Photo Credit: Press TV

A reader at The Optimistic Conservative pointed out that the media outlets hailing the election of Hassan Rohani, a so-called “moderate,” as the next president of Iran are the same outlets that consider the Tea Parties in America to be “radical.”

Given that most of these media outlets would agree that the clerical mullahs of Iran’s Guardian Council are radicals, the task for the Tea Parties seems clear: simply proclaim some among their membership to be “moderate.”  Send the moderate members to talk to the media and negotiate political issues.  The moderate Tea Partiers need never make a concession or give any ground; their only requirement is to serve as the self-proclaimed moderates of the Tea Party movement.  A few tweets would help too.  The media outlets should greet the Tea Party moderates with acclaim and be excited to see them elected to public office.

Election of a ringer?

If it works for the Iranian government, it should certainly work for the Tea Parties.  The fertile TOC comments section provided a preview for another significant point, which is that the clerical council effectively positioned Rohani as a “moderate,” in the hope that doing so would give him an electoral victory with a reform-hungry people.  What I said on the topic was this:

We could even suggest that Khamenei suffered [Rohani] to be talked up as a reformer in order to pacify the people with his win.

At The Tower, Avi Issacharoff quotes Dr. Soli Shahvar of Haifa University:

“[Rohani] never called himself a reformist … But he uses rhetoric that is less blustery than that of Ahmedinejad, and speaks more moderately, including on the subject of nuclear negotiations.” Shahvar’s conclusion with respect to Rouhani’s win is unambiguous. “I interpret his election in one way only: The regime wanted him to win. If they had wanted one of the conservatives to win, they would have gotten four of the five conservatives to drop out of the race, paving the way for [eventual runner-up, Tehran Mayor Mohammad-Bagher] Ghalibaf to win. But they didn’t do that. Moreover, it was the regime that approved the candidacy of Rouhani [sic] alongside only seven others. This is striking evidence that Khamenei wanted Rouhani to win, both internally and externally.”

Shahvar goes on to basically outline my theory from the comments at the link above:

“Victory for a candidate who is perceived as more moderate yet still has the confidence of Khamenei, serves the regime in the best way. Externally, Iran today is in a very difficult situation with regard to sanctions and its international standing. A conservative president would only have increased Tehran’s isolation in the world. A victory for someone from the ‘moderate stream,’ however, will immediately bring certain countries in the international community to call for ‘giving a chance to dialogue with the Iranian moderates.’ They will ask for more time in order to encourage this stream, and it will take pressure off the regime. And so we see that in the non-disqualification of Rouhani and especially in the non-dropping-out of four of the five conservative candidates there is more than just an indication that this is the result the regime desired.”

(See here for a separate, very worthwhile summary of Rohani’s victory.)

Rohani’s election positions the regime to cater – superficially – to reform-minded voters in Iran, while improving Iran’s prospects in international negotiations.  There is no doubt that the international media will provide governments with a cover story about Rohani and “reform” in Iran.  They are already doing it.  With Rohani depicted as a moderate and a reformer, nations like Germany, India, Japan, and Brazil – nations which have been conflicted on the sanctions against Iran, and have trod a convoluted course to both honor and circumvent them – will see a handy justification for modifying their stances.

Sanctions roll-back?

Iran can expect a rush of trade relaxations some time after Rohani takes office.  It is worth taking a moment to reflect on how robust Iran’s trade relations already are, in spite of the sanctions: economic powerhouses like Germany, China, and India have continued to do robust trade with Iran, even when that trade is clearly boosting Iran’s nuclear program (see here for more on the story, the latest in a list of such stories coming from Germany.  Here’s another one, albeit with – apparently – a happier ending).

For a flavor of how robust trade has continued to be, see the following links:

Iran’s car industry a big sanctions-buster

German-Iranian connection solid as ever

German firms continue trading with Iran despite sanctions policy

Germany: EU Iran sanctions don’t prohibit Hamburg Bank

Why has Germany snubbed Obama over Iran sanctions?

Who is who in German trade with Iran

China signs steel deal in Iran

Trade allies throw lifeline to Iran’s steel sector

Iran seeks Chinese proxies to further offshore drilling ambitions

India takes steps to boost trade with Iran

There is a lot more, but one can’t spend all day on web searches and link pasting.

Of course, some foreign nations’ trade decisions have been made easier by the Obama administration’s policy of indefinitely extending exemptions for them from U.S. retaliation if they bust the sanctions.  As this NPR piece outlines, banks in Malaysia, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Turkey, and Taiwan are being exempted from U.S. penalties for prohibited financial dealings with Iran.  No surprise, unfortunately, that Turkey has been a profitable avenue for financial sanctions-busting in particular (and continues to be one by exporting gold to Iran in exchange for natural gas).  Iran has also been hiding oil off the east coast of Malaysia, while Sri Lanka is side-stepping sanctions with some fancy accounting that basically amounts to barter with Iran.  So it’s not as if the exempted nations are getting their waivers for good behavior.

If you see these as holes in the sanctions big enough to drive a truck through, your powers of deduction are functioning as intended.  These are the highly breachable sanctions which the election of Rohani is likely to roll back.  Sanctions by themselves typically become simply a feature of the economic landscape and are quickly worked around by the ingenious human mind; they were never likely to put a serious dent in Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.  But with Rohani’s ascent, we can expect to go from a set of strangely and intermittently administered sanctions to what will be, in effect, a get-out-of-jail-free card for Iran.

A similar dynamic will probably prevail in nuclear negotiations.  Iran will be able to profit from the mere chimera of prospective reform, without actually demonstrating any.  With Ahmadinejad gone, we face the real prospect of the same old intransigent, radical, anti-non-proliferation positions being relabeled “moderate” by the media and Western politicians – just because Rohani, and not Ahmadinejad, has become their public face.

Transforming the security narrative

But the larger dynamic will be the opportunity Rohani’s putative moderation will create for the world to find a post-Pax Americana footing.  If Angela Merkel, for example, says of Rohani that she can do business with him, it will not be in the context of an unbreakable security alliance with the United States that she says it.  Rather, it will be a step outside the NATO box, and Germany and much of Europe will see it in its proper terms:  as Germany pursuing the policy of a de facto European hegemon in seeking to shape and engage with the East.  It has been about a century since the European powers last acted on this basis in a non-ideological manner, and in conditions in which no ideological conflict dictated alliances.

Were an un-clubbable Iranian “conservative” to be in the hopper behind Ahmadinejad, the international community would not reorient itself as I suggest here.  The overarching narrative about Iran and everyone else would remain the same.  But whether it should or not, the election of Rohani is virtually certain to mean that it will change.

Given the nature of the American administration in office today, this may not, on balance, be a bad thing.  Obama’s actions in accordance with the “radical-Iran” narrative have been inconsistent and perfunctory at best.  They have above all been ineffective.  Going along with U.S. policy really isn’t doing anyone any good.

The pious “reformist” myth growing about Rohani offers the world an opportunity to move on from the narrative.  Unimpressive as they too often are, the nations of Western Europe may yet do no worse than Obama has, in engaging Iran.  One thing this prospect has in its favor is competition.  Britain, France, and Germany are by no means a foreign policy bloc today, and nations like Poland, the Netherlands, and Italy have the economic strength and geographic assets to act as counterweights and spoilers, at least in concert with allies of convenience (e.g., with one of the larger Western European nations, or with powers like India, Saudi Arabia, and Azerbaijan).  Russia and China engage separately, and for their separate reasons, as do regional giants like Japan and Brazil.  No one on the scene can organize everyone else according to his own vision.  The feeding frenzy to engage with Iran will be competitive, and it will reverberate across the region and even around the world.

No one is ready to take the reins as a global superpower right now.  In the absence of a Pax Americana, Germany and Russia will find themselves, as they have before, jockeying for position and influence.  China and India will be factors they were not in the past, but the basic dynamic will be the same as it was 100 or 200 years ago.  The threat of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction raises the stakes today, but in the absence of a global hegemon, it does not change the game.

It’s a gas, gas, gas

One prism through which to view this emerging competition will be the impending decisions about the long-desired non-Russian pipeline to move natural gas from the Caspian region to Europe.  The hoary “Nabucco” project, long considered all but defunct, got an infusion of life in late May when France’s GDF Suez acquired a 9% interest in it.  With this acquisition, a major West European firm has jumped into Nabucco, which had been hanging on with only Austrian, East European, and Turkish backing.  Nabucco’s non-Russian rival, TANAP (Trans-Anatolian Gas Pipeline), is making a run at Nabucco and counting on momentum, and on securing Azerbaijan’s backing, to ensure victory.  According to Austria’s energy minister, the decision between the two aspiring pipelines to the Caspian gas will be made this month, June 2013.

But Turkey gets a pipeline run either way, and Turkey’s domestic situation is dicey right now.  That alone might not postpone the pipeline decision.  But now the prospect has emerged of Iran becoming eligible for trade in polite company again.  Reality doesn’t matter nearly as much as perception here, if Iran can be relied on to keep order and honor her commitments.  In the matter of the trade and hard currency for which she hankers, she assuredly can, at least in the short run.

An alternative to Russian pipelines is a Holy Grail for European security; an alternative to a pipeline through Turkey is something many Europeans, especially those in Southeastern Europe, would consider a very good idea.

Not that investors would give up on a pipeline through Turkey. Her geographic centrality makes it too obvious a solution to many problems.  But decisions about it can be postponed a bit longer, if there is a prospect of having both a non-Russian pipeline through Turkey, and access to gas through Iran and other geographic waypoints in the region.  It doesn’t take a European statesman of preternatural brilliance to see the advantage in that.

Bringing Iran in from the cold opens up a lot of options for European and Asian calculations.  Wanting to do business with Iran, and to gain a regional position through engaging with her, is a no-brainer from the perspective of at least a dozen European and Asian nations.  Americans may not see it; Westerners in Brussels may not see it; but everyone else does: the world is changing.  The old post-World War II narrative of security needs and priorities is all but dead.  The Obama administration in the United States now effectively asks the world to run in a harness that doesn’t fit anymore – and the world is looking for reasons to stop doing it.

Rohani an answer to the emerging question?

Much of the world has probably just found such a reason in Hassan Rohani.  We should not underestimate how much change will be ushered in by a perceived opportunity here.  This is an opportunity the nations of Europe and Asia are quickly realizing they wanted; they will not ignore it, nor will they relinquish it in favor of fealty to the sclerotic worldview animating Obama’s policies.

Rohani will not pursue nuclear weapons with any less zeal than his predecessor.  As long as Khamenei is alive, there will be no test of how domestically reform-minded Rohani really is.  He is not Iran’s Mikhail Gorbachev.  (The Guardian Council is not the Politburo of the 1980s, which is the biggest determining factor.)  He probably won’t be, either, even if Ayatollah Khamenei passes away on his watch.  If anything, Rohani’s probably a Yuri Andropov: a regime loyalist who won’t change things, but who will put a different and seemingly more interesting face on an unchanged regime.

So the potential for threat from Iran is the same as it was a week ago.  The media narrative will flog incessantly the theory that it isn’t, but the truth will be that nothing has changed in that regard.

What we do not want to undersell, however – any more than we want to oversell it – is the expansion of possibilities that will come with increased, and competitive, engagement by European and Asian powers with Iran.  Although we can predict with some certainty how nuclear negotiations will go in the near future, what we cannot predict is either how important they will be as a nexus for relations with Iran, or what other influences and pressures will come into play.  We can’t count on those pressures and influences being marshaled and unified through U.S policy – and that means that decision factors for everyone, including terrorists and other non-state actors, will be more diverse, and not less.

Perhaps perception shouldn’t be able to produce such important outcomes.  But in the case of Hassan Rohani’s election, the perception meets a preexisting need, one felt by many nations.  The dynamics unleashed in a global response to this perception will change the game – whether Iran wants them to or not.

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5 Responses to “Is Rohani a Moderate Game-Changer or a Diversion?”

  1. Dan Silagi says:

    We're going to have to wait and see if the election of Rohani makes a difference. I believe it shows the Iranian people have had enough of the theocratic tyranny which has existed since the overthrow of the Shah (before that, it was non-theocratic tyranny).

    But we have to remember that the Revolutionary Guards and the mullahs still call the shots. There will have to be a popular uprising to clean these vermin out of Iran, and that's not happening — yet. So until then, it should be business as usual between the US, Israel, and Iran — which means regime change as far as the true rulers are concerned.

  2. Gil Gilman says:

    Before reading the article: Diversion. After reading the article: Tea Party is not radical, just full of nitwit ideas, and rhetoric…well…wait a minute…isn't that what Iran is full of?

  3. Gil Gilman says:

    Before reading the article: Diversion. After reading the article: Tea Party is not radical, just full of nitwit ideas, and rhetoric…well…wait a minute…isn't that what Iran is full of?

  4. This overthrowing of the Shah thanks to the coward Jimmy Carter the worst President of US all times.

  5. This confirms what I've thought all along — most of the world's nations are terrorists and enemies of the USA, so we'll ultimately have to wage war against most of the rest of the world in order to remain a free nation!

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