The tragedy of Iran is that it may not be able to reach an agreement over its nuclear program even when it knows it needs one. The Islamic Republic’s political class knows its hold on power depends on sustained economic growth, and that in turn requires a resolution of the nuclear issue. But the men who rule Iran still want the leverage of nuclear power.
The Islamic Republic was thought to be different this time around. The world was hopeful that the presidential election of 2013 would put to rest the sham of the 2009 election. After all, in this telling, the forces of moderation that were denied the presidency finally reclaimed the office when Hassan Rouhani was elected to succeed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The system had managed to rehabilitate itself and regain a measure of its credibility. The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, proved his flexibility and thus managed to preserve his teetering republic.
But this view ignores the lasting effects of the fraudulent 2009 election. Once millions of Iranians poured into the streets claiming that Ahmadinejad had stolen the election, the right and center political factions closed ranks. The challenge to the system came as much from the protesters as it did from leftist reformers, many of whom chose to separate themselves from the government. The repression that followed was swift, and the reformers excised from the body politic. The prisons are still filled with those who have chosen to “live in truth” rather than join the lie.
In his sermons and proclamations, Khamenei has made it clear that any criticism of the 2009 election is an act of sedition. His right-wing allies have cheered his resolution, and centrist politicians, such as Rouhani, have accepted his verdict. As a price for being allowed to run for the presidency, Rouhani had to concede to Khamenei’s manufactured conspiracies and condone the persecution of his erstwhile colleagues.
The Rouhani administration has not improved Iran’s human rights record because that was never part of the cruel bargain the president made with the supreme leader. Rouhani’s portfolio was to be limited to the economy and nuclear diplomacy.
It is important to account for what Iran has lost. Since the 1990s, reformers worked toward an imaginative reconceptualization of the role of the citizenry in an Islamic government. They claimed that democracy and Islam were compatible in principle and practice. This was a remarkable rebuke to Khamenei’s totalitarian Islam, which provides the government with a divine justification for its privileges and abuses. But in 2009, Iran’s hard-liners and pragmatists conspired to smother one of the most important democratic movements in the annals of the modern Middle East.
Khamenei and Rouhani now represent political factions that have invested much in the nuclear program. Khamenei and his Praetorian Guard’s vision of regional hegemony requires an enhanced military capability. Rouhani’s memoirs chronicle his efforts on behalf of the fledgling atomic industry that the Islamic Republic inherited from the shah. Economic exigencies have pressed both men toward diplomacy on the issue, but whether it can propel them toward accepting a stringent agreement is another matter. They both want a deal. But they also want to preserve much of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.
And this is why the verdict of the 2009 election may have doomed the prospects of a viable arms control agreement. A durable solution to Iran’s nuclear imbroglio ultimately requires a reformist government in power. The essence of the reform movement was that democratic empowerment at home necessitated detente abroad.
Reformers, such as former President Mohammad Khatami, did not speak of regional hegemony but of a good neighbor policy. They did not question the Holocaust — as Khamenei did recently and has done throughout much of his career — but spoke of moving beyond entrenched enmities. The reformers’ focus on internal liberalization would have led them to accept the mandates of the international community. A reform movement in command of the presidency may have been able to nudge Khamenei toward accepting meaningful restrictions on the nuclear program.
It is hard to see Rouhani having the will or the desire to do the same thing.
Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.