New president of Iran is no moderate

There has been much ado about the recent election of Hasan Rouhani as president of Iran and its geopolitical significance.

Many were quick to label Rouhani a “moderate,” suggesting that now may be the time to negotiate with Iran. However, despite the sham elections and promises of change by Rouhani, the structure of the Iranian regime remains intact. The ultimate power still remains with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The only change that matters in Iran is the prospect for true democratic change.

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Rouhani is no moderate. He has long been entrenched in the regime’s political and intelligence apparatus. Behind the facade of moderation is a simple truth evident since the last so-called “moderate” Iranian president, Mohammad Khatami: While the president may put on a charm offensive to the West, the supreme leader is still driving toward nuclear weapons and using terrorism abroad to accomplish his political agenda. While this strategy may have fooled many before, we should not be so naive this go-round.

There are very simple and straightforward ways to measure meaningful change in Iran. Standard benchmarks include freedom of speech, the treatment of political prisoners and the use of terror abroad and at home. Can Rouhani have any effect on these issues? The simple answer is no. Short of complete institutional change, none of these matters will be addressed in any meaningful way.

The elections were essentially another tactical maneuver by Khamenei to maintain his grip on power. Whereas his mass electoral fraud in 2009 in order to secure another term for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad resulted in rare popular protests, this year, increased isolation and division at home have forced him to take even more drastic steps to maintain his survival. The first of these maneuvers was the disqualification of former President Hashemi Rafsanjani from his candidacy in the elections.

This was an act of desperation to avoid a potentially catastrophic situation at the polls. The once untouchable supreme leader now does not even have the political will to ensure conformity and discipline among his own rank and file.

Though he wanted Iranian politician Saeed Jalili as president, Khamenei was forced to allow the election of Rouhani due to an inability to unite the candidates in his own faction, plus the fear of a widespread revolt if he engaged in blatant fraud. Such a tactic may allow him to surpass the danger of an immediate uprising but will inevitably lead to increased factional infighting down the line.

Rouhani’s presidency may in fact serve to empower change in Iran, but not through reform or “moderation.” As the infighting escalates and dissent grows, activists in Iran may seize the opportunity to voice their desire for real and radical change, just like in 2009.

This call for fundamental change was echoed June 22 in France, when more than 100,000 Iranians converged to remind the international community of the real desires of the Iranian people. They made a simple, yet compelling argument that the only policy option for dealing with Iran is to reject military intervention or further appeasement of this regime and to embrace democratic change.

The Iranian delegates were joined by more than 600 political dignitaries, lawmakers and jurists representing a wide spectrum of political parties from 47 countries. 

They urged the West to stand with the Iranian people in their quest for freedom. They stood in solidarity with those in attendance in advocating a democratic secular republic that respects civil and human rights, and ends the nuclear program. They also demanded that the international community act to ensure the protection of Iranian refugees trapped in Camp Liberty in Iraq, where two dissidents died in an attack the day after the election.

The June 22 event highlighted hope for the democratic forces in Iran. It stood in stark contrast to the apathy and hopelessness that pervaded the elections. Policymakers would do well to remember who is really calling the shots in Tehran. As long as the supreme leader and his henchmen are in power, our best hope are those who are fighting for true, democratic change. And that’s just the way it is.

Poe has represented Texas’s 2nd congressional district in the House of Representatives since 2005. He sits on the Judiciary and Foreign Affairs committees and is chairman of the latter’s subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade.