Early reporting often described Iran’s president-elect, Hassan Rouhani, as a “moderate.” Some of that same coverage and commentary did caution that Rouhani was close to the country’s 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 Iran’s presumed nuclear weapons program and backing of terrorist groups such as Hezbollah.
Initial reporting rarely touched on Rouhani’s 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 Goodman’s June 19 article said, “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.”
Rouhani also apparently was a member of a secret committee overseeing assassinations of the regime’s 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 Iran’s 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 Ahmadinejad—widely 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). “Rouhani’s 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 chain’s readers were what, in the context of the leadership of Iran’s 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.
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 country’s 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 country’s “Supreme Leaders,” Shiite Muslim dictators with a triumphalist world-view. Iran has had only two such tyrants since its 1979 Islamic revolution: Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini—for whom Rouhani also worked—and Khomeini’s 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 Erdbrink’s 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 ballot—four described as conservatives and one as a moderate—to split the remainder. The paper, like other outlets, did not question the reliability of the figures, even though Ahmadinejad’s 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 Iran’s presidential election, Hassan Rouhani, is known for his negotiating skill over the country’s 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 Khomeini’s 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 man—he’s 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.
“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 Journal’s own newsroom: A front-page headline from the same edition spoke of Iran’s “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 don’t 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 Iran’s “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,’” Rouhani’s win under Khamenei’s system, “almost guaranteed that the Iranian people—who came out into the streets after the previous elections were stolen from them—would 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 (“Rouhani’s 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 don’t spell out in detail why the regime wants a robust nuclear program.” Instead, Rouhani “repeatedly mentions nuclear technology’s importance to the nation—in 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 didn’t hear him.
(Note: Some media spell the Iranian president-elect’s name as Hasan Rowhani, or Rohani. For consistency, this article has standardized all uses as Hassan Rouhani.)