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The tragedy of Hassan Rouhani


Hassan Rouhani stands as one of the most unfortunate leaders in the history of the Islamic Republic. This week, he will once more address the United Nations, offering plans for a future than he no longer controls. The latest crisis in the Gulf was the final death nail of his tattered presidency.

Rouhani was a consummate insider who could not master the theocracy’s poisonous politics. He was said to be a gifted diplomat who misunderstood America’s centrality in the global economy. He is ending his tenure complaining about his lack of authority, the perfidious Americans and the unreliable Europeans.

It all started out well in 2013, when Rouhani was first elected. His objectives were indeed modest, obtaining an arms control agreement that he assumed would revive Iran’s stagnant economy. He delivered on the promise a mere two years later as he negotiated an accord that protected Iran’s nuclear assets while giving it access to the global financial markets.

And then came the litany of mistakes and misjudgments that doomed his presidency.

Rouhani and his cagey foreign minister Javad Zarif never anticipated that Donald Trump would be elected president or that his administration would follow through on its pledge to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement.

Once Trump did so, they assured themselves that America could not multilateralize its economic sanctions. All the things that Rouhani insisted would not take place, did so, ruining Iran’s economy and his political standing.

As he faced the most acute crisis of his presidency, Rouhani moved in bewildering directions. He initially stuck with the nuclear agreement, believing that he could outwait Trump and his sanctions. Once that failed, Iran began violating the nuclear accord at regular intervals as a means of pressuring the Europeans to inject funds into its economy.

But the decision to invest in Iran was no longer the choice of diplomats and politicians but businessmen who were more impressed with Washington’s threats than Tehran’s offerings. As all around him collapsed, Rouhani publicly bemoaned his lack of authority, stressing, “So long as the government does not have greater authority, the people will not have a better life.” He even lashed out against the elderly Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, comparing him unfavorably with his iconic predecessor.

“In the last four years of his life, he [Ayatollah Khomeini] especially supported the government and gave it much authority.” Such public denunciations can only mean that Rouhani no longer commands much influence in the corridors of power.

This week, Rouhani will entertain his share of dignitaries at the United Nations, but he will no longer determine the direction of the Iranian regime. That is now the function of Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards who always lurked in the Islamic Republic’s darkest corners. The lesson that they have learned from the Iraq War is that terrorism against the United States conducted by proxies and with hints of deniability can best serve Iran’s interests. The hardliners made their preferences clear when they assaulted the Saudi oil installations.

As Hussein Dehghan, former minister of defense and Revolutionary Guard general, bragged, “Playing with the lion’s tail carries serious dangers and if they take actions against Iran there will be no tomorrow for them.”

These hardened men are not interested in begging Europeans for money or contemplating ways of reaching out to the United States. They need sanctions relief but they believe that the Europeans will pay and the Americans will look the other way only if they fear that the Middle East is coming undone and its oil supplies are endangered. They may have the same objectives as Rouhani, namely to garner more European investments in Iran, but their tactics are altogether different.

The Iranian regime’s latest stratagem is indeed a risky one as it could lead to a dramatic escalation of tensions. It is urgent for the Western leaders to disabuse Tehran of the notion that threats and violence can serve its interests. America has to lead a coalition of willing in patrolling the Persian Gulf waters.

And the Europeans would be wise to shelve all their talk of lines of credit and economic opportunities for a regime that just finished assaulting the world’s most essential oil facilities. The Middle East rarely offers a respite to Westerners seeking to be relieved of their burdens. The only way to avert war today is to display resolution.

Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.