The Islamic Republic isn’t a democracy, but a theocratic dictatorship
News must be new but it needn’t be surprising. The decidedly unsurprising news out of Iran last week: There was an election (of sorts) and the winner was Hassan Rouhani, the incumbent president. An apparently mild-mannered cleric with a beatific smile, he has presided over Iran for four years — a period of egregious human rights violations, the Iranian-backed slaughter in Syria, the taking of American and other hostages, and increasing support for terrorists abroad. Nevertheless, you’ll see him described in much of the media as a “moderate.”
At most he is a pragmatist, one with a keen sense of how credulous Western diplomats and journalists can be. He knows they won’t judge him based on such quotes as this: “Saying ‘Death to America!’ is easy. We need to express ‘Death to America!’ with action.”
In Iran, the president is not the most powerful figure. That distinction belongs to an unelected “supreme leader.” It is to the supreme leader that all government bodies report — including the 12-member Guardian Council, which approves presidential candidates. This time around, more than 99 percent of those who hoped to run were disqualified because they did not hold politically/religiously correct positions. Women also were excluded.
Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran has had two supreme leaders. The first was Ruhollah Khomeini, a charismatic cleric with the fiery mien of a biblical prophet. The Carter administration and the mainstream media initially mistook him for a moderate as well. Anyone who had bothered to read what he had been writing since the 1940s would have been aware that he regarded himself as a jihadi and believed that Islam should “conquer the whole world.”
After Ayatollah Khomeini’s death in 1989, Ali Khamenei, who had been president, was appointed supreme leader by the Assembly of Experts, an entity whose members also are selected by the Guardian Council. Based on this it should be clear: Iran’s elections are not open, not free and not fair — even when they are not rigged as they were in 2009.
The New York Times has called Iran’s form of government “undemocratic democracy.” That’s amusingly oxymoronic but not at all precise. I would call it a theocratic dictatorship cleverly marketed to provide the illusion of representative governance. It may be helpful to compare it to the Soviet system in which the Communist Party decided which candidates could run and what elected officials could do. In Iran, substitute mullahs for commissars.
Mr. Rouhani’s main rival in this election was Ebrahim Raisi, who doesn’t pretend to be anything but the hardest of hard-liners. So should those of us concerned by the strategic threat Iran represents feel relieved about the election’s outcome?
On the contrary: As my colleague, former CIA Iran specialist Reuel Marc Gerecht has pointed out, a win by Mr. Raisi would have been the better result because it would have made it more difficult for Western leaders “to deceive themselves about Iran’s intentions.” It also would have increased “the distance between the Iranian people and their overlords.”
Journalists and diplomats who make the case for Mr. Rouhani’s moderation usually point out that he is eager for improved economic relations with the West. That’s true but his goal, transparently, is to strengthen Iran’s economy, a necessary precondition for building a more powerful military. It’s not just coincidence that the budget of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and missile development program has risen 24 percent this year.
Might a wealthier Iran become complacent? Might it lose its zeal to fight and sacrifice in order to spread its Islamic Revolution? That was what President Obama hoped and what Ayatollah Khamenei fears. To Mr. Rouhani, I suspect, it’s a manageable risk.
During his first term as president Mr. Rouhani’s most significant achievement was concluding the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). He and his silver-tongued foreign minister, Javad Zarif, persuaded President Obama to lift sanctions and turn over billions of dollars. Iran’s economy — which had contracted by 6.8 percent in 2013 and 2 percent in 2015 — last year grew by an estimated 6.4 percent. In exchange, Mr. Rouhani promised to delay Iran’s nuclear weapons program — a program whose existence he denies.
What’s next on his to-do list? My guess is that he’ll attempt to widen divisions between the U.S. and the European Union, attract foreign investment and end non-nuclear sanctions — sanctions imposed for the regime’s support of terrorism, violations of human rights and continuing ballistic missile programs.
That last task may prove challenging: After renewing a temporary waiver on U.S. sanctions against Iran’s crude-oil exports, the Trump administration last week slapped several new non-nuclear sanctions on Iran, adding to a list of more than 40 imposed this year.
David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, and my colleague Mark Dubowitz call this the “waive-and-slap approach” — essentially a holding pattern as President Trump’s advisors attempt to work out a comprehensive and coherent Iran policy, one not predicated on the belief that Iran’s rulers can be appeased.
Mr. Trump’s top national security advisors are acutely aware that the ambition of those rulers is to build a new Persian/Islamic empire. Already, Iran controls Lebanon through Hezbollah, its loyal proxy, powerfully influences the Iraqi government, supports Houthi rebels in Yemen and has dispatched its own forces, as well as those of Hezbollah, to defend Bashar al-Assad, its loyal and lethal client, in Syria. Iran and Hezbollah are increasingly penetrating Latin America as well.
On Saturday, around the same time that Mr. Rouhani’s victory was announced, President Trump arrived in Saudi Arabia where the threat posed by such neo-imperialist ambition was the top item on the agenda. That, too, was not just coincidence.
Sometimes international law is ambiguous. Sometimes not. When it comes to murdering civilians and using chemical weapons to get the job done, there are no grey areas, no fuzzy lines, no mitigating circumstances. Such practices are clearly and specifically prohibited under what’s called “the law of war.” That makes Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s dynastic dictator, a war criminal. And it makes Iran his chief accomplice.
Colorado congressional leaders condemned the chemical weapons attack launched by the government of President Bashar al-Assad after the U.S. military launched cruise missiles into Syria Thursday. President Trump’s assault on a Syrian military airfield with 59 cruise missiles is the first direct U.S. intervention in the country’s 6-year-old civil war, and it could enflame relations with Russia and […]
Over the last five years, Syria has been descending into a hell on Earth. Over the last four months, the lowest depths of the inferno have been on display in Aleppo, an ancient city, once among the most diverse and dynamic in the Middle East. On Dec. 16, in the final press conference of his presidency, Barack Obama addressed this still unfolding humanitarian and strategic catastrophe.
“So with respect to Syria,” he said, “what I have consistently done is taken the best course that I can to try to end the civil war while having also to take into account the long-term national security interests of the United States.”
Ayman al-Zawahiri was correct. Believed to be ensconced in the tribal lands of Pakistan, the leader of what’s sometimes called al Qaeda Central has dedicated his life to a jihad that he hopes and prays will lead to the founding of a new and mighty Islamic empire. But he understands the value of strategic patience.
In particular, he recognized that establishing a caliphate before conditions were favorable for its survival and expansion could only be unhelpful, causing Muslims to doubt whether spreading Islamic domination in the 21st century is a divinely blessed mission.
When peace-loving people sit down together in a spirit of compromise they can find ways to resolve their conflicts. Does it follow that negotiations with those who don’t care a fig about peace and reject compromise also lead to good results?
Logic says no, and evidence to the contrary is scarce. Yet this dubious proposition was the basis for the Nobel Committee awarding its Peace Prize to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos two weeks ago. His achievement: He had concluded a “peace accord” with FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a Marxist-Leninist militia that for over half a century has waged a guerrilla war that has taken more than 200,000 lives.
Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo.” That line from Donald Trump’s long and emphatic speech to the Republican National Convention jumped out at me. I think I know what he meant: that he prioritizes America’s national interests above those of the wider world.
If so, most Americans probably agree. I’d be among them. But there are complexities here that are worth unpacking.
For one, globalism is a term the media often use but seldom define. The academic literature strikes me as confusing — or perhaps just confused. From a recent tome on the subject:
Five years ago, during the hopefully named Arab Spring, Syrians staged peaceful protests against the ruling dynasty that had long oppressed them. President Bashar al Assad responded brutally: In May 2011, he sent tanks into the suburbs of Damascus, Deraa, Homs and other cities to crush his critics. Civil war followed.
Experts, not least those in the US government, convinced themselves that the rebels would prevail. There were simply too many angry Syrian Sunnis and President Assad, a member of the Alawite minority, had too few loyal troops. Before long, Sunni jihadis from abroad began streaming into Syria to support the rebels. Among them were branches of al Qaeda, one of which splintered into the Islamic State.
Events then took an unexpected turn. Iran’s rulers, self-proclaimed Shia jihadis, regarded Mr. Assad as their most important ally in the Arab world — or, perhaps more precisely, a regent of their expanding empire. So they instructed Hezbollah, their loyal Lebanese Shia militia, to deploy fighters to Syria to defend him.
It’s surprising how time slips away: Five years ago next month, President Obama proclaimed a “responsibility to act” when American “interests and values are at stake.”
He made that statement in a major address at the National Defense University in Washington, DC. Within days, a no-fly zone was established over Libya, and the forces of longtime dictator Muammar Kaddafi were stopped in their tracks.