By Patrick J. Kennedy
Jan. 14, 2016 at 2:01 AM
Countless instances since the 2013 election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani — including most recently the state-sanctioned torching of the Saudi embassy in Tehran — should have dispelled the notion that we are dealing with a moderate reformist at the helm of the Islamic Republic. Sectarian conflict is on the rise with Iran backing Syria’s Assad, Hezbollah, an anti-American insurgency in Yemen and radical Shia factions in Iraq.
Rouhani has gradually lost most of his reformist supporters in Iran, who have suffered increasing repression and worsening economic conditions during his tenure. These developments have proven the accuracy of analyses from sources like the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), which insisted from the start that moderation was not a realistic prospect under the existing theocratic regime.
Indeed, the illusion of a “moderate” Iranian president has persisted for more than three decades, despite its nonexistence in reality. Rouhani is only the latest to artfully exploit this fantasy and play into a naïve, aspirational worldview among many in the West about Tehran’s behavior and intentions. Rouhani counts on his audience ignoring the fact that Islamic extremism is at the heart of Tehran’s theocracy.
The country’s clerical leadership has devoted much of its power and authority to establishing itself as the leading voice for radical Islam. It has done this by supporting terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and their attacks on Middle Eastern and Western targets, as well as by spreading anti-Western and anti-Semitic vitriol through extensive propaganda networks. In fact, the regime’s constitution declares that it is the duty of its leadership to export the extremist “revolution” and encourage the spread of strict sharia law beyond Iran’s borders.
These facts make it easy to see why groups like the NCRI doubt that progressive change could come from within a state in which extremism is woven into its DNA. Were only America and its allies so sober.
The European Union has continued to pursue rapprochement and expanded trade with Iran despite signs that the Islamic Republic is not cooperating with last year’s July 14 nuclear agreement. This is even more troubling when we look at Iran’s domestic and regional policies during the same period.
While Tehran delayed its implementation of the nuclear deal, it defied the Western intentions behind the agreement by showing off its hidden ballistic missile supplies and declaring that the military would continue working toward nuclear-capable weapons. Two such weapons were tested in October and November in clear violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
The Iranian government has been unapologetic in its rejection of the principles of civilized society. In October, the Iranian judiciary executed at least two people who had been minors at the time of their alleged offenses. This prompted renewed criticism from Amnesty International and other human rights defenders. In response, Iran reviewed the cases of two other juvenile offenders, only to uphold their death penalties.
The government-organized thugs who stormed the Saudi Embassy in Tehran and set it on fire may have rendered peace in the Middle East even less possible in the near term than before.
Rouhani has made no serious effort to improve conditions in his country, whether for juvenile offenders, political prisoners or the Iranian people in general. He has overseen over 2,000 executions during 2 ½ years in office (almost three times more than the former firebrand president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad). These atrocities have coincided with a crackdown on pro-Western and pro-democratic sentiment inside and outside the country, including an 80-missile barrage on Iranian dissidents in Camp Liberty, Iraq, in late October, which left 24 dead and dozens wounded.
There is no reason to believe that 2016 will be any different. The Iranian president’s carefully constructed public denunciation of extremism must not again lull the West into a false sense of security, especially when his regime’s actions continue to demonstrate inhumanity as a domestic policy and hatred of America and its allies as a foreign policy.
This is the position that European governments should take with Rouhani when he visits Europe this month. On Iran, hope is not a substitute for responsible policy.
Patrick J. Kennedy, a Democrat, is a former Rhode Island congressman.