Disregarding Iran’s Election: A Taxonomy

by Marsha B. Cohen

Appearances to the contrary, the narrative underlying much news coverage of Iran’s recent election is still unfolding. While media attention has been diverted to the George Zimmerman trial domestically and to events in Egypt internationally, efforts to malign Iranian president-elect Hassan Rouhani and to strangle any hopes for an improvement in U.S.-Iran relations continue unabated. The vacuum at the highest levels of U.S. foreign policy analysis is being filled by an echo chamber of self-styled and mutually reinforcing “experts”.

Certain themes and talking points have been constant. They have been crafted and honed by AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which published these talking points 4 days after Rouhani won) and its spin-off think-tank WINEP (the Washington Institute), the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a host of other hawkish think-tanks and advocacy groups such as the American Jewish Committee (AJC), the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), the Heritage Foundation and the Gatestone Institute. Consider some examples:

1) Iranian elections are a farce and a fraud, controlled by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei:

“Make no mistake — the Iranian elections don’t matter. The presidency in Iran is more about style than about substance. Control rests firmly with the Supreme Leader — the “Deputy of the Messiah on Earth” — and he need not submit himself to ordinary mortals for affirmation.” – Michael Rubin, Resident Scholar at AEI, “The Iranian elections don’t matter. Here’s what does,” May 20.

#Iran announces cleric Hasan Rohani won the presidential election. Rohani, like all 7 candidates, was vetted & approved by the SupremeLeader” – AIPAC, Twitter, June 15

“Rouhani hand picked by the Supreme Leader & Guardian Council. His rec of deception on the nuclear program is clear. http://www.brandeis.edu/crown/publications/meb/MEB5.pdf …” – Sen. Mark Kirk, Twitter, June 18 (h/t Julian Pecquet, Politico)

“Let’s not forget that those who ran for the presidency, including Rowhani, had to be approved by the ruling mullahs.”- David Harris, Executive Director of the AJC, Press Release, June 16

“This election was an adept maneuver by Iran’s leader, Khamenei, to return control of the system to the clerical establishment. It is, thus, not at all clear that Khamenei chose genuine reform as a policy.” – Meirav Wurmser and David Wurmser, “A Tricky Power Play by the Religious Leaders, New York Times, June 17

“The presidential election didn’t offer much insight into what the Iranian people want. With a reported turnout of 72 percent of the country’s 50 million registered voters, informed sources in Iran charge that the regime exaggerated the actual turnout by a factor of 4 or 5. This election is almost certainly as fraudulent.” – Lee Smith, Visiting Fellow at the Hudson InstituteThe Weekly Standard, “He’s No ‘Moderate’“, June 17

“Indeed, Rohani has close ties to the regime. Unelected Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in power for 24 years, cleared each candidate for the presidency, including Hassan Rouhani. He rejected nearly 99 percent of those who filed to run in the election, including former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Every one of the eight candidates permitted to run was considered loyal to the regime and its interpretation of Islam.” AIPAC, Memo, June 18

“First, to become a presidential candidate, Rouhani had to pass muster ideologically with Supreme Leader Ali Hosseini Khamenei and his entourage. Of scores of would-be candidates, only six made it to the ballot. That ought to say something about who Rouhani really is. If his positions deviated all that much from those of the regime, he would have been barred from running.” – David Harris, El Pais, “Iranian Elections”, July 1

2) There are no “good” or “better” candidates in Iranian elections. Candidates who are ideologically driven are messianic madmen; candidates who seem pragmatic are devious and therefore even more dangerous. Rouhani’s election is therefore bad news for the U.S. and Israel because his demeanor and pragmatism will make it harder to demonize Iran:

“…it’s better to have an aggressive Saeed Jalili than a sweet talking Hassan Rouhani, I am, despite myself, rooting for the vile Jalili.”- Daniel PipesBlog, June 14

“Now let’s see whether Khamenei allows Rouhani to play rope-a-dope & offer a 20 percent deal. If so, should tie up the West for 12+ months.” – Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the FDDTwitter, June 15

“With time running out, the Senate should move forward with toughest sanctions possible – rope-a-dope talks not an option. #Iran” – Mark Kirk, Twitter, June 18

“Hassan Rowhani is no moderate or reformer, at least in the American sense of the word. The hardline Guardian Council, which vets candidates in Iran, allowed less than 2 percent of registered candidates to run. Rowhani may have been the most liberal candidate on the ballot, but to call him a moderate would be like calling Attila the Hun a moderate because he reduced prison overcrowding and was, relatively speaking, to the left of Genghis Khan.” – Michael Rubin, National Review Online, “Iran’s Moderate President” June 17

“It would be more than a little surreal to see the new president champion ideas that he’s spent most of his revolutionary life ignoring or crushing. Hope springs eternal, of course, which is one reason why so many Iranians, who have consistently shown their disgust for Khamenei, would vote for such a dubious man.” – Reuel Marc Gerecht, senior fellow at the FDD, New York Times, “Rowhani is a Tool of Iran’s Rulers,” June 17

3) Even the most moderate-seeming Iranian politician has a dark and sinister past waiting to be uncovered. Guilt by association or even speculation will suffice. If all else fails, just make something up:

“Rouhani is a supreme loyalist, and a true believer, who lived in Paris in exile with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and followed him to Iran. He was a political commissar in the regular military, where he purged some of Iran’s finest officers, and a member of the Supreme Defense Council responsible for the continuation of the Iran-Iraq War, at a great cost in Iranian lives, even after all Iranian territories were liberated. He rose to become both Secretary of Iran’s powerful Supreme National Council in 1989, and Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, under former Iranian presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and his successor Mohammad Khatami.” – Mark Dubowitz, The Atlantic, “Why You Shouldn’t Get Too Excited About Rouhani,” June 17

“Rowhani didn’t really protest the crackdown on the pro-democracy Green Movement in 2009, and was enthusiastic in his praise of the crackdown on pro-democracy Tehran University students in 1999. In all probability, Rowhani supported Rafsanjani’s and Khamenei’s assassination of internal and external dissidents in the 1990s and other terrorist operations in Latin America, Europe and against the United States in Khobar, Saudi Arabia in 1996.” –  Reuel Marc Gerecht, New York Times,Rowhani is a Tool of Iran’s Rulers,” June 17

“Iranian President-elect Hassan Rowhani was on the special Iranian government committee that plotted the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, according to an indictment by the Argentine government prosecutor investigating the case. The AMIA bombing is considered the deadliest terrorist attack in Argentina’s history, killing 85 and wounding hundreds more. The Argentine government had accused the Iranian government of planning the attack and Iran’s terrorist proxy Hezbollah of carrying it out. Numerous former and current Iranian officials are wanted by Interpol in connection with the bombing.” – Alana Goodman, Washington Free Beacon, “New Iranian President Tied to 1994 Bombing“, June 19

“Iranian president-elect Hasan Rowhani was allegedly involved in plotting the deadly 1994 attack on a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, according to the indictment filed in the case. The attack, attributed to Iran and carried out by the terrorist group Hezbollah, killed 85 people and injured hundreds…Rowhani’s name in the indictment was first reported by the Washington Free Beacon.” – Yoel Goldman, Times of Israel, “Iran’s President-Elect Implicated in 1994 Argentina Bombing,” June 20

“Rouhani has been an integral part of the post-1979 Iranian system, not a rebellious outsider. As one telling example, he is reported to have been present at a fateful 1993 meeting of the Iranian Supreme National Security Council—he was its secretary at the time—when the decision was made to bomb the AMIA building in central Buenos Aires. That meeting has been documented by the relentless Argentine prosecutor in the case, Alberto Nisman. The actual attack was carried out in July 1994. Eighty-five people were killed and hundreds wounded in one of the deadliest assaults in Latin America in decades. – David Harris, El Pais, “Iranian Elections“, July 1.

[Note: Alberto Nisman, the Argentine prosecutor in the AMIA case, informed Times of Israel editor David Horovitz by e-mail on June 24 that Rouhani was not under indictment or accused of any involvement in the AMIA bombing:

“Contrary to recent reports, Hassan Rouhani did not participate in the 1993 Iranian leadership council meeting that authorized the following year’s terrorist attack on the AMIA Buenos Aires Jewish community center building in which 85 people were killed, the Argentinian prosecutor in the case told The Times of Israel…Asked whether his investigations had found any evidence of Rouhani having a role in Iranian-orchestrated terrorism, Nisman replied, ‘There is no evidence, according to the AMIA case file, of the involvement of Hassan Rouhani in any terrorist attack.”]

4) Nothing can or will change for the better after Rouhani’s election: 

“Rowhani will have little power. Remember that a moderate already served eight years as president and accomplished nothing. Rowhani is clearly loyal to the regime or he wouldn’t have been the only reformist candidate who was approved for the election by the regime.” – Barry Rubin, Rubin Reports, “Reformist Candidate Wins Big in Iran’s Election“, June 15

“The election of Hussein Rowhani instilled hope in the West that Iran may be internally moderate and that an Iranian Gorbachev has been found. It is unlikely, however, that these hopes will be realized.” Meirav and David Wurmser, “A Tricky Power Play by the Religious Leaders“, New York Times, June 17

“What we are likely to see—in a best-case scenario—is a big tent that includes many, though not all, of the revolutionary establishment figures that Rouhani has grown up with. Others who’ve fallen away from Rafsanjani will likely be inside; and the conservative clergy, with its mixed feelings about the supreme leader’s theocratic hubris, may be there, too.  The only ones unlikely to be included are the serious reformers. They will remain unloved and unwanted, though Rouhani may try to cut down on their harassment.” – Reuel Marc Gerecht“Meet the New Mullah,” Weekly Standard, July 1

5) Sanctions, sanctions, sanctions! If sanctions are working, more will work even better. If they aren’t, it’s because they aren’t enough. Either way, we need more sanctions with increased and enhanced enforcement:

“The United States must persuade nations still buying Iranian oil to significantly reduce their purchases. Countries that violate U.S. law, including China and Turkey, must face consequences, including sanctioning financial institutions involved in oil purchases. Financial institutions and individuals conducting financial transactions with or providing services to the Central Bank of Iran or other sanctioned banks must be identified and sanctioned. The European Union must be persuaded to stop allowing Iran to conduct transactions in Euros. The United States should consider barring companies or individuals from doing business in the United States if they engage in significant commercial trade with Iran.” AIPAC, Memo, June 18

“As Members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, we appreciate your recent imposition of new sanctions and urge you to increase the pressure on Iran in the days ahead. An added positive action would be extending sector-based sanctions on the mining, engineering and construction-based sectors of Iran. We plan to strenthen sanctions with additional legislation approved nanimously by the Committee on Foreign Affairs and now pending in the House of Representatives.” – AIPAC-drafted Letter to President Obama signed by all but one member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, June 28, 2013.

“After July 1, new sanctions will blacklist metals trade with Iran including aluminum, coal, steel, gold, silver and platinum amongst others, and should include alumina.” – Mark Dubowitz, quoted in ReutersIran Importing Missile Grade Ore from Germany, France, July 2, 2013

6) Sanctions, although necessary, are insufficient without true threats of force:

“Unless the West is prepared to bring the regime to the brink of economic collapse combined with the credible threat of military force, we are unlikely to break the nuclear will of the regime.” – Mark Dubowitz, “Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei Stocks Election to Replace Ahmadinejad with Loyalists,” Washington Times, May 27

“The United States must maintain a strong physical presence in the Persian Gulf and the broader Middle East as a deterrent to Iran and to give credibility to the president’s statements.” – AIPAC, Memo, June 18

“It’s also certainly worth doing what the Americans did in 2003: Scare the mullahs. After Saddam Hussein went down, the Iranian regime, according to the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, stopped experimenting with nuclear triggers and warhead designs. In 2004, Khamenei accepted, even if briefly, Rouhani’s suspension of uranium enrichment. Update the fear: Obama could declare that he intends to attack Iran by air and by sea but that Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards have the power to stop him. He could go to Congress and ask for authorization to strike. And he could tell his senior commanders to stop saying publicly that they neither foresee nor need to plan for another land war in Asia.” – Reuel Marc Gerecht, “Meet the New Mullah,” The Weekly Standard, July 1

“…the United States should hold exercises involving B-2 bombers (which can carry the 30,000-pound Massive Ordnance Penetrator, or MOP) and should encourage media reports that highlight ongoing military preparations. It should also publicize major milestones in the fielding and deployment of the upgraded version of the MOP, which was developed to deal with Iran’s deep underground uranium-enrichment facility at Fordow.” – Michael Eisenstadt, WINEP Strategic Report 13, “Not by Sanctions Alone“, July 2013

As Rouhani forms his cabinet, perhaps this taxonomy can serve as a useful guide…

Photo Credit: Mona Hoobehfekr

Marsha B. Cohen

Marsha B. Cohen is an analyst specializing in Israeli-Iranian relations and US foreign policy towards Iran and Israel. Her articles have been published by PBS/Frontline's Tehran Bureau. IPS, Alternet, Payvand and Global Dialogue. She earned her PhD in International Relations from Florida International University, and her BA in Political Philosophy from Hebrew University in Jerusalem.



  1. One can’t help but wonder about the various think tanks/Israeli supporters/so called journalists, can say with a straight face that they have the best interests of the U.S.A. out front with all the P.R. they peddle! When one considers that Israel with 6-7 million citizens are able to demand and get the 300+ million U.S. citizens to back their plays, either the 300+ million U.S. citizens are ignorant or the government is just plain corrupt, on both ends.

  2. Very useful resource Ma’am. Glad to see academics in USA are trying to educate the public about how their Government might be on its way to repeat Iraq 2003. Thanks. Greetings from India!

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