“Rouhani is the Friendly Face of Terror”

A conversation between Stephan Grigat (University of Vienna) and Mojtaba Shamsrizi (The World Security Network Foundation’s expert on Iran) on Iran’s new president Hassan Rouhani. Moderated by Manouchehr Shamsrizi for PDU

The inauguration of Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani has triggered different reactions within international politics and media – Is he the beacon of hope for democratization, reform and a new Iranian foreign policy? Or has the old theocracy merely put on a new face?
The latter is definitely the case. Any talk of “peaceful foreign policy” has no grounds in reality simply because Rouhani has made very clear his desire to continue Iran’s close cooperation with the anti-Semitic terrorist organization Hezbollah in Lebanon. The ever-smiling new President of Iran fulfils the function of a shrewd tactician in the service of the Ayatollahs. Rouhani is the friendly face of terror. A close confidante of Supreme Spiritual Leader Ali Khamenei, he served for many years as secretary of the regime’s National Security Council. This was at a time when the Ayatollah’s minions had many members of the opposition killed, not only in Iran but also in Europe. The 1994 attack on the AMIA Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires, where more than 80 people were killed and hundreds severely injured, happened during his tenure as Secretary of the Security Council. In 1999 he demanded the death penalty for protesting students. In 2009 when millions of Iranians, under a great danger to their lives, gathered to protest the regime despite being confronted with brutal force, Rouhani did not move an inch from Khamenei’s side. For him, as for all members of the Iranian regime, Israel is a “wretched land,” a “wound in the body of Islam,” “the great Zionist Satan,” against whom he demands the “the full reinstatement of the rights of the Palestinian people.” This is tantamount to the Khamenei’s depiction of Israel as a “cancer” that should be cut out, and will be cut out.” But unlike Ahmadinejad, Rouhani is quite adept at speaking in the kind of pseudo-diplomatic jargon that shows just enough consideration for European sensitivities. The threat of annihilation towards Israel is no invention of Rouhani’s predecessor but constitutes a fixture in the official political agenda of the Iranian theocracy ever since 1979. Right after the revolution it was Ayatollah Khomeini, who proclaimed “Quds day,” on which yearly demonstrations take place not only in Iran but also in big European and American cities that call for the annihilation of Israel.


The Azadi Tower in Iran’s capital Tehran.

Recently Rouhani presented his cabinet to the Iranian parliament saying he had assembled it from members of all political camps with respect only to the qualifications of his ministers. He stressed that he given no consideration to political loyalties. His draft even includes a female Vice President, a professor of law who is also a women’s rights activist. Don’t such concessions feel like a breath of fresh air and do they maybe point to a possible end of the internal power struggle between conservatives and reformers?
Rouhani’s cabinet list doesn’t point to an end of the struggles, but they will be somewhat tamed, as was the case during former President Rafsanjani’s tenure. Indeed, apart from the Reform-Islamists, who helped him get elected in the first place – and about whose agenda one shouldn’t have any illusions –  Rouhani is trying to accommodate almost all factions with his appointments. The exiled Iranian writer Ali Shirasi very pointedly summed up the situation when he said about the new cabinet: “A carrot for the international community, a stick for the Iranian people.” This becomes clear if one considers for a moment the new ministers of justice and of foreign affairs: the designated chief diplomat Mohammad Javad Zarif will follow Rouhani’s course of selling to the world a moderate face of the regime, without actually making any substantial concessions. The selection of Ahmadinejad’s former secretary of the interior Mostafa Pourmohammadi, who played an integral part in the prison massacre of 1988, during which thousands of regime critics where executed in a very short period of time, serves however as a clear signal to the people of Iran that they shouldn’t dare to rebel against the system in any way.


Since its inception the Iranian regime has been subject to permanent power struggles between opposing rackets.


Will the conflicts of competence between the secular and the religious leadership, which recently came to a head between Ahmadinejad, Rafsanjani and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei be defused with Rouhani at the helm?
This is certainly possible. The various factions will set some of their differences aside in favour of the common interest of the regime. But that doesn’t mean that these divergent interests will just disappear. Since 1979 the regime has been characterized as an organization in the shape of competing gangs. Referring to Max Horkheimer’s racket-theory and in connection with Franz Neumann’s state-theoretical ideas, Gerhard Scheit once – very much to the point – analyzed the Islamic Republic as a “non-state” (Unstaat). Since its inception the Iranian regime has been subject to permanent power struggles between opposing rackets, in which the Supreme Spiritual Leader, who towers above the various factions, serves as a kind of referee. Since the electoral charade of 2009 this system has come into question, now it will be reconstructed. There is nothing positive about that. It merely means that the regime will regain some of the stability it had previously lost. Regarding the basic nature of the “Islamic Republic,” which has killed thousands of Iranians during the last decades and driven millions more into exile, a Rouhani presidency will change nothing. The point of contention between the factions ruling the system isn’t the what of their political goals, but simply the how of the implementation of these goals.

How do you view the international reporting on Rouhani during and after his election?
The reporting by Western news agencies reflects a naïve desire, paired with, especially in Europe, a dominant interest not to put into jeopardy the business transactions with the holocaust denying regime, that have been going on despite all sanctions and that are worth billions of Euros. For some years now a tendency can be observed to simply close one’s eyes to the continued efforts by Iran to acquire nuclear weapons capabilities and the rocket systems to deliver warheads, hoping that regardless of the nature of the regime, things are not going to turn out too bad in the end. International politics cannot be driven by naïve desires or unfounded hopes, but have to start with sober and rational analysis. This kind of analysis tells us two things. First, when it comes down to the core issues of Islamist ideology, Rouhani is not the kind of moderate many in the West would like to see him as. And second, even if he were, the dominant position of the Supreme Spiritual Leader and the incredible power of the Revolutionary Guards, who are in fact controlling the nuclear program, wouldn’t allow him to translate his ideas into actual policy anyway.


The President will do his best to exploit differences among Western nations and to use them to Iran’s advantage.


Are strategy changes in Iranian foreign and security policy discernible if we take Rouhani’s announcements and his former political work into account?
We will see a change in tactics, not strategy. While the goals will remain the same, rhetoric will change. It is conceivable that the regime will budge to some small extent even in relation to uranium enrichment in centrifuges. This is conceivable firstly because it could ensure that uranium enrichment can at least carry on and secondly because the alternative path to the atomic bomb, via plutonium enrichment in the heavy water reactor in Arak expected to be ready in 2014, should gain more weight. Rouhani did not boast without reason that his skilful negotiations with the EU-3 (the UK, France, and Germany) had helped to considerably further Iran’s nuclear project in his time as chief negotiator under President Khatami. So this is a glimpse of how things could now proceed: Backed by Khamenei, Rouhani may attempt to gain time with new rounds of talks. The regime in turn will use this time to implement its nuclear option. The President will do his best to exploit differences among Western nations and to use them to Iran’s advantage. Khamenei’s long-standing confidant seems far better equipped to succeed in this game than his overly ambitious predecessor Ahmadinejad, whose avid rhetoric eventually proved counterproductive for the Supreme Spiritual Leader’s aims. The aim, meanwhile, is clear enough: Apart from winning time for its arms build-up, the government hopes to soften sanctions making the regime’s life more difficult with every passing day despite numerous loop-holes and exceptions.

How do you assess the opposition both at home and abroad? Do you believe there may be suitable partners for the West within the opposition?
We could observe the opposition’s role in Iran in 2009. At first, Western experts on Iran had been certain the regime was secure and the West would have to come to terms with it. Not long afterwards, millions of Iranians protested against the regime both in provincial cities and the metropolises. It did not take long for the early expressions of outrage at forged elections, embodied in the slogan “where is my vote?” to transform into a more profound demand: “Down with the Islamic Republic!” This liberation movement was primarily rooted within the younger generation. The movement advocates and fights for political freedom but also explicitly for individual, personal freedom, two aspects that can hardly be separated in Iran. The young exponents of the movement are pleasantly sceptical of the established oppositional groups, which are often organised in a highly authoritarian manner. One essential weakness, however, seems to be that the new opposition groups so far find it difficult to effectively and durably organise themselves in the face of brutal repression and comprehensive surveillance. The movement’s potential, however has by no means simply disappeared despite many of its key components having to leave the country. Established opposition groups play important roles, not only in organisational but also numerical terms. Millions of exiled Iranians live in the EU and the USA and amongst these there are many essential contacts for the West. It is the case that the opposition is heterogeneous and equally fragmented. The recent past has seen serious attempts at reconciliation. Some groups’ appearance or individual political demands may not come across as very appealing. However, apart from small Sunni-jihadist groups in Iran I cannot think of any serious opposition force that does not stand for something better than the country’s current regime and its very specific political Islam. Here we see an essential difference to revolts in Egypt and Tunisia. It will be decisive that the situation of 2009 not be repeated, when the Iranian liberation movement was left to its own devices in two ways. Firstly, by the global left, which hardly garnered any support. Secondly, and more importantly, neither the EU nor the US provided any more than meagre condemnations of violence against protesters. Western politicians should now assist especially those who speak up for a secular, democratic-constitutional Iran. Those who do can naturally be found, both in Iran and abroad and in the younger generations as well as amongst the established opposition.


EU members should follow Canada’s example by cutting diplomatic ties with Teheran and starting to actively support the opposition in Iran and in exile.


Are there reliable estimates of the Iranian population’s approval or refusal of the regime? Regarding the 2009 elections and those held recently, the question arises as to whether large numbers of Iranians perhaps do not support the regime’s radical course, for instance concerning nuclear policy and whether or not this support led them to elect their ex-chief negotiator.
I doubt Rouhani’s election had much to do with nuclear policy. Insofar as elections are concerned – in which hundreds of candidates were excluded beforehand – it is reasonable to suspect the significance of so-called elections for the opinions of ordinary Iranians to be by no means substantial. Trustworthy polls are hardly imaginable under the circumstances successive Iranian governments have created over the last thirty-four years. Nonetheless, the fact remains that millions of people defied life-threatening violence, torture, and rape in prisons by taking to the streets in 2009, and this highlights what the majority of Iranians think of the Ayatollahs. The regime retains its supporters, of course, though not as many as for instance during the revolution or in the early 1990s. Demonstrators in 2009 rejected the nuclear policy as well as the assistance to Hezbollah and terror groups in the Gaza Strip. All other relevant and sensible opposition groups – I explicitly exclude the so-called “reform Islamists” under Khatami or Moussavi – agree. Talk of “defending national Iranian sovereignty” and the necessity for a “common anti-imperialist fight” is becoming increasingly hard to find and if you do come across it, it is only being uttered by fossilized Stalinist groups who supported Khomeini during the “Islamic Republic’s” early years.

In your opinion, what should the West do? How should governments react to Rouhani’s overtures?
Instead of talking about taking back sanctions, the point is, that one shouldn’t fall fort the tactical manoeuvres of the regime. EU members should follow Canada’s example by cutting diplomatic ties with Teheran and starting to actively support the opposition in Iran and in exile. Continuing the dialogue only means giving back to the Ayatollahs the legitimacy that they lost long ago with large parts of the population. It’s all about withdrawing financial resources to make it impossible for the regime to continue its agenda of oppressing its people and striving for nuclear capabilities. Furthermore, there need to be clear red lines when it comes to Iran’s weapons programs. That means, next to tougher sanctions it also has to be made clear that intervening militarily is a real option.


Dr. Stephan Grigat earned his Phd in political sciences at FU Berlin and is now a lecturer at the University of Vienna. He cofounded the alliance STOP THE BOMB and is co-editor of “Der Iran. Analyse einer islamischen Diktatur & ihrer europäischen Förderer as well as Iran im Weltsystem.Bündnisse des Regimes & Perspektiven der Freiheitsbewegung. His articles have been published by DIE ZEIT, Der Tagesspiegel, taz, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Basler Zeitung, Die Presse, Der Standard and Wiener Zeitung. 

Dr. Mojtaba Shamsrizi is a writer, journalist, mediator and cultural manager based in Hamburg. Born in 1952 in Isfahan, Iran, he left the country due to political pressure by the Shah-regime, and went into exile in Germany. In his writings he addresses social issues like xenophobia and racism and argues for human rights and social justice. Additionally, he expresses his thoughts by composing music. With his expertise he has acted as advisor for media-productions of several German radio and TV-stations, including NDR, WDR and ZDF.

Manouchehr Shamsrizi is a Global Justice Fellow at Yale University and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts as well as the Institute of Cultural Diplomacy. His academic activities includes membership in several think-tanks including the “beta-group” of ZEIT Foundation, Google’s Co:llaboratory, the German Council on Foreign Affairs, Siemens “Future Influencer”, British Foreign & Commonwealth Office and Wilton Park’s Atlantic Youth Forum and the “Yunus Brainpool”, a Generation Y advisory board of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Muhammad Yunus’ Grameen Creative Lab. He was elected a “European Future Leader”, a “One Young World Ambassador”, a “Leading Digital Native” (IBM), a “Sandbox Global Ambassador”, twice a “Leader of Tomorrow” at the St. Gallen Symposium and is was awarded the „Germany Scholarship“ by the Federal Government.

Image: “Azadi Tower”courtesy of Ben Piven via Flickr released under creative commons 2.0 attribution.

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