Early reporting often described Irans president-elect, Hassan Rouhani, as a moderate. Some of that same coverage and commentary did caution that Rouhani was close to the countrys long-time theocratic dictator, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Nevertheless, the president-elect benefited from assumptions of open-mindedness and flexibility. This unjournalistic hopefulness covered not only domestic issues including individual rights and economic management, but also international tension over Irans presumed nuclear weapons program and backing of terrorist groups such as Hezbollah.
Initial reporting rarely touched on Rouhanis participation 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 (New Iranian President Tied to 1994 Bombing, The Washington Free Beacon). Alana Goodmans June 19 article said, the AMIA bombing is considered the deadliest terrorist attack in Argentinas history, killing 85 and wounding hundreds more. The Argentine government had accused the Iranian government of planning the attack and Irans terrorist proxy Hezbollah of carrying it out."
Rouhani also apparently was a member of a secret committee overseeing assassinations of the regimes opponents and encouraged the deadly suppression of Iranian protests in 1999, as Goodman reported on June 20 (Iranian President-elect Sat on Assassination Council, Free Beacon).
Regardless, Americans following Irans election got a different picture early on.
As the only perceived moderate in the race, Rouhani had a natural appeal for those seeking a new direction after eight years of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejadwidely seen as a divisive and bombastic figure who badly mismanaged the economy, The Tribune Newspapers Ramin Mostaghim and Patrick J. McDonnell reported (Iranians desire for change fueled presidential upset, The Los Angles Times, [online] June 15). Rouhanis reputation has long been that of a slightly conservative but pragmatic cleric with deep roots in the 1979 Islamic Revolution, The Los Angeles Times article added.
Tribune Newspapers also include The Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun and Orlando Sentinel, among others. Undefined for the chains readers were what, in the context of the leadership of Irans Islamic revolutionary republic did slightly conservative, pragmatic cleric and deep roots in the 1979 Islamic Revolution meant. Given that more than 600 potential candidates were winnowed to eight by Khamenei loyalists on the unelected Council of Guardians, with no actual challengers to the mullahs anti-democratic, anti-Western rule permitted, media references to moderate, reform and international reconciliation seemed premature at best.
In his first news conference since being elected president
moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani said he wanted better relations with Washington. But he ruled out suspending Irans nuclear enrichment program, the biggest source of tensions between the two governments
The Washington Posts Joby Warrick and Jason Rezaian reported (U.S., Iran soften tone; Cautious Optimism About Rouhani; Progress on nuclear issue still uncertain, June 18 [print]).
'Cautious Optimism' not cautious enough
The Post noted that administration officials and independent experts expressed cautious optimism over the election of a self-declared reformer who promised more political freedom for Iranians and a more pragmatic, less confrontational foreign policy. It was, however unclear whether Rouhani, a long-time Khamenei ally, has any intention of changing the countrys nuclear course.
Six days earlier, a Post headline had stated Iranian moderates pin their hopes on cleric; In presidential race, Rouhani is seen as best alternative to hard-liners. Rezaian reported that three days before the presidential election, moderates and reformists in Iran are coalescing behind Hassan Rouhani, a cleric and former nuclear negotiator, as their best hope of staving off a field of divided conservatives, who had been seen as having the upper hand in the race.
This Post article also referred, ahistorically, to the reform movement of the late 1990s and early 2000s, before the extremism that took hold with the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005. Iranian presidents, as virtually all news coverage noted at least in passing, defer to the countrys Supreme Leaders, Shiite Muslim dictators with a triumphalist world-view. Iran has had only two such tyrants since its 1979 Islamic revolution: Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeinifor whom Rouhani also workedand Khomeinis successor, Ayatollah Khamenei.
The New York Times reported the outcome under the headline Iran Moderate Wins Presidency by a Large Margin, June 15 [online]). Correspondent Thomas Erdbrinks lead told readers in a striking repudiation of the ultraconservatives who wield power in Iran, voters here overwhelmingly elected a mild-mannered cleric who advocates greater personal freedoms and a more conciliatory approach to the world.
Rouhani took 50.7 percent of the vote, according to official figures, The Times said. This enabled him to avoid a run-off and left the other five candidates still on the ballotfour described as conservatives and one as a moderateto split the remainder. The paper, like other outlets, did not question the reliability of the figures, even though Ahmadinejads announced reelection in 2009 was generally believed to have been fraudulent and lead to widespread demonstration brutally repressed by government forces.
But the paper did add that if the election was a victory for reform and middle class voters, it also served the conservative goals of the supreme leader, restoring at least a patina of legitimacy to the theocratic state, providing a safety valve for a public distressed by years of economic malaise and isolation, and returning a cleric to the presidency.
A USA Today lead echoed that perspective: The moderate-conservative candidate and victor in Irans presidential election, Hassan Rouhani, is known for his negotiating skill over the countrys nuclear weapons program and as a reformist some hardliners in Iran previously saw as too liberal and conciliatory, Iran analysts say (Reformist surprise with Iran election win; But Hassan Rouhani may not wield real power, analysts say, June 17).
The article, by Victor Kotsev and Jabeen Bhatti, said in addition that Rouhani became an ally and part of the inner circle of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, serving in various roles in the government following Khomeinis ascension to power. It quoted Iranian scholar and researcher Alireza Nourizadeh as saying the president-elect always pretended to be a moderate, played the game really well and convinced voters he is a reformist.
But I know this manhes the same man that served in the Supreme National Military Council for 24 years and called for the execution of student protesters after widespread demonstrations in 1999.
'Shiite fascism' more to the point
Rouhani unvarnished appeared frequently in opinion columns. The Wall Street Journals
Bret Stephens pointed out that not only did Irans president-elect chair the countrys National Security council when the 1994 Argentine bombing was planned but also in 1996, when a suicide truck bomber struck Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, killing 19 U.S. airmen. In addition, Rouhani led Tehrans successful playing-for-time nuclear negotiations
from 2003 to 2005 (A Pragmatic Mullah, June 18).
The search for a moderate Iranian leader has beguiled every American president since the revolution in 1979, The Wall Street Journal editorialized, (An Iranian Unicorn, June 17). No such creature has ever been found. But the hunt for the unicorn seems destined to begin again with the breathless reporting that Iranians have elected 64-year-old cleric Hassan Rouhani as their next president. Ironically, the hunt included The Journals own newsroom: A front-page headline from the same edition spoke of Irans surprise election of a centrist.
However, The Journal editorial cautioned, ultimate power in Iran rests
with Mr. Khamenei and his fellow clerics, who are backed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which has expanded its control over business and other parts of society in recent decades. Iran today is best understood as a Shiite fascist state with a democratic electoral veneer and ambitions to dominate the region.
Reinforcing the Shiite fascist state description, Harold Rhode reiterated, Iranian presidents dont have powers like American presidents. Rhode, who retired in 2012 after 28 years as a Middle East specialist at the Pentagon, emphasized that the Farsi word for Irans Supreme Leader or guide is rahbar; paralleled perhaps most closely in Western languages by the German fuhrer or leader, the title used by Adolf Hitler during Nazi rule.
Since Rouhani spoke moderately during the campaign and had a previous reputation for being moderate, Rouhanis win under Khameneis system, almost guaranteed that the Iranian peoplewho came out into the streets after the previous elections were stolen from themwould not this time protest the election results. Rouhani's election, therefore, pacifies the reformers who clearly will not demonstrate against him, thereby sparing the Iranian regime having to suppress, arrest, and murder people, actions which had horrified the international community.
Writing for the Gatestone Institute, Rhode added, moreover, the West could lull itself into believing that since Rouhani is a moderate, maybe he is someone we can deal with. The election result, therefore is huge win for Khamenei and his clique, and a defeat for the West, Israel, and the Iranian people.
Think tanks too contributed context missing from much news reporting. Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (Rouhanis Nuclear Views: An Open Book? June 19) noted that in at least seven books and 50 articles, Rouhani describes being actively involved on the nuclear issue for at least 24 years
. His books dont spell out in detail why the regime wants a robust nuclear program. Instead, Rouhani repeatedly mentions nuclear technologys importance to the nationin other words, he does not emphasize an economic rationale.
Nearly one month before the vote, U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, at a press conference in Israel, said the Iranian presidential campaign was hardly an election by standards which most people in most countries judge free, fair, open, accessible, accountable elections [answer to last question]. Apparently, many reporters, headline writers and commentators didnt hear him.
(Note: Some media spell the Iranian president-elects name as Hasan Rowhani, or Rohani. For consistency, this article has standardized all uses as Hassan Rouhani.)