Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Mideast Media Sampler 6/19/13: The Media Has Decided That Hassan Rohani Is A Moderate, Despite His Record

by David Gerstman, contributing blogger at Legal Insurrection

1) Asserting Moderation

Having read many articles about Iran's new President, Hassan Rouhani, I'm struck by how little evidence is presented that he is a moderate or reformer, even though those words are regularly used to describe him. He's described as a reformer because he's supported by previous presidents Khatami and Rafsanjani (and how exactly is the latter is a "reformer" is a mystery). But that's moderation by association. He is described as a critic of the outgoing President, Ahmadinejad or possibly of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Kahmenei. But that's moderation by negation. It's pointed out that when he was Iran's lead nuclear negotiator he wasn't confrontational. True, but this was about style, not substance.

Hassan Rohani
Hassan Rohani -- moderation by association?
Credit: Wiki Commons

At the Wall Street Journal, Sohram Ahmari put together an extensive indictment of Rouhani. (Michael Rubin offers more about Rouhani, here.) Amazingly, many of the same news organizations that now tout Rouhani as a moderate, reported on his activities in his previous roles in the Islamic Republic and the picture that emerges is of a hardline member of the regime. It's important to remember that Rouhani isn't a mid-level cleric who finally worked his way up to the top, but rather an important player in the government since it's inception in 1979. (Rouhani was close to  the Ayatollah Khomeini.) Instead of relying on their own reporting in the past, news organizations created an image based more on Rouhani's associations than on his actual record. A look at contemporaneous accounts shows a much different man, from the one portrayed in the media today.

Robert Mackey of the New York Times has noted that at rallies for Rouhani the name of Mir Hussein Mousavi was shouted. Mousavi, the leader of the "Green" movement in 2009, is still under house arrest. Mackey, intentionally or not, created a link between Rouhani and that protest movement. However, Rouhani, in the past was the face of the regime, not of dissenters.

In 1992, four protesters were hanged. The New York Times cited Rouhani, who was one of the representatives of the government who justified the harsh measures of the regime.
"These were not regular people," Ayatollah Khamenei told new members of Iran's Parliament today, the television reported. "The incidents in Mashad were a conspiracy by foreigners, our enemies. They have launched a holy war to turn public opinion in Iran against the Government." 
Other senior Iranian officials have delivered similar assessments about the spread of the protests that began last August in Teheran and have since recurred with greater violence in four major cities by the poor trying to save their makeshift dwellings from demolition by municipal crews. 
Hojatolislam Hassan Rouhani, secretary of the National Security Council, said at the Friday prayer sermon in Mashad last week that the riots in Mashad were "an attempt to undermine the stability in the province," which borders the newly independent former Soviet republics in Central Asia, "to discourage expanding relations between Iran and our neighbors to the north."
(Hojatolislam is an honorific for certain Islamic clerics.)

In 1999, again Rouhani showed his contempt for protest.
One speaker, senior clergyman Hassan Rowhani, declared that those who damaged public property during six previous days of reform protests would be tried as enemies of the state _ a crime that carries the death penalty.
(In this article, Rouhani was implicitly identified as a hard liner.)

While a number of news outlets portray Rouhani as seeking better relations internationally, that has not been the case in the past. In 1997, after a German court convicted an Iranian and three Lebanese nationals in the murders of four Iranian Kurdish dissidents and implicated Iran's leadership in ordering the killings, Rouhani, as a member of the ruling class, faulted Germany.
Iran, which rejected the ruling in Germany, summoned home its Ambassador to Germany and withdrew four diplomats. It has also said it would recall envoys from the European Union countries that summoned home their ambassadors. 
Today the Deputy Speaker of Parliament, Hassan Rowhani, said Iran had canceled a planned visit by an Australian economic delegation. It also suspended all trade contracts with New Zealand, the state-run news organizations reported. 
Mr. Rowhani called for a ''total revision of ties with Germany,'' urged a halt to investments there and a ban on purchases of German equipment, state television reported.
Also, some expected that Rouhani would seek better relations, specifically, with the United States. His record shows the opposite.
Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright announced the changes on Friday in Washington's first policy response to the reformers' landslide victory in parliamentary elections last month. 
But the mixed response she drew from conservatives here highlighted the differences that still split the Iranian government over the pace of any opening to the United States. The head of Iran's top security agency, Hassan Rouhani, said Dr. Albright's statement was ''repugnant and unacceptable.'' 
''We must condemn this new and flagrant interference in our affairs,'' said Mr. Rouhani, the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council. ''This statement is full of irksome, threatening and interventionist elements, which call our institutions into question.''
Then there are those who believe that Rouhani will end "the nuclear standoff with the West." But Rouhani was one of those who initiated the standoff!
Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rowhani, said at a news conference that his nation would not accept any outside limitation on its uranium enrichment programs and that "no international body can force Iran to do so." 
The response came a day after the International Atomic Energy Agency adopted a resolution calling on Iran to suspend all enrichment-related activities before the agency's next meeting in November. 
The agency has expressed alarm at Iran's plans to enrich nearly 40 tons of uranium. Experts say that would be enough to provide Iran with the material for several nuclear bombs. The Iranian government insists that its nuclear program is for electricity production only.
In issue after issue the record of Hassan Rouhani stands in stark contrast to the image now projected in much of America's major media. Wasn't there one editor who thought to check his organization's archives? It's not difficult; you could do it in your pajamas.

Worse than simply being lazy, The Washington Post's Joby Warrick and Jason Rezaian did some reporting. In Moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani wins Iran's presidential vote, they interviewed a source.
Rouhani probably will bring with him a cadre of more moderate diplomats, technocrats and nuclear negotiators who favor a more pragmatic foreign policy, said Trita Parsi, author of “A Single Roll of the Dice,” a book on the Obama administration’s dealings with Iran. 
But whether the political shift leads to a deal to restrain Iran’s nuclear program depends on many factors, much outside the control of Iran’s new president, Parsi said. 
“Ultimately the ball comes back to our side of the court,” Parsi said. “Neither side can break this impasse alone.”
By mentioning Parsi's book, they potrayed Parsi as an expert. But he isn't a disinterested observer. He is an advocate for the current leadership of Iran. So Parsi's observation - holding the United States responsible for mending fences with Iran - was passed off as news, but Rouhani's record was obscured. A later article by the same two was more responsible, but still too timid in its treatment of Rouhani (and Iran.)

The earliest mention I found of Rouhani as a moderate, was from 2004, when he started to break with Ahmadinejad. There is no indication that the break was political, but seemed to be personal and possibly, theological. But someone doesn't become a moderate because of who he isn't.

2) Velayat-e Faqih

Even if Rouhani's record did confirm that he was a true moderate and not just, as a Washington Post editorial put it, "the default candidate of Iran's reformists," there is little reason to believe he would change anything in Iran. As Barry Rubin has observed, Mohammed Khatami made no difference in his eight years as President. But that's because the president of Iran is still subordinate to the country's Supreme Leader.
The doctrine by which Iran is governed is called "velatyat-e faqih," or "guardianship of the jurisprudent." Frederick Kagan explains the origin of this doctrine.
Khomeini outlined this interpretation in a series of lectures in exile in Najaf in early 1970. In accord with long Shi’i custom, one of his students transcribed the lectures (one of the ways by which a student can gain the formal recognition of his master) and published them under the title, “Islamic Government.” Drawing heavily (if sometimes selectively) on the Qu’ran and various hadiths (primarily Shi’a hadiths, including some rather obscure traditions), Khomeini argued that since Islam is a religion that encompasses and shapes all aspects of human life, there can be no division between religion and the state. Muslim society, he argued, requires a state that is guided by Islam and that enforces Muslim law. Any other form of political organization is illegitimate and puts the souls of its citizens or subjects in grave jeopardy. 
He further argued that Shi’i jurisprudents (fuqaha, plural of faqih) are the successors of the Imams, and thus of the Prophet. Their duties, he claimed, went beyond interpreting the faith and amending the laws, but included holding executive power in a just Muslim society. The nature of the argument is very similar to Plato’s justification for the rule of the Philosopher-King in The Republic, but the justifications Khomeini offered were drawn almost entirely from the traditions of the Imams. An Islamic State, he concluded, must be governed by the “guardianship of the jurisprudent” (velayat-e faqih). ... 
Khomeini himself had been rather vague about how to determine which among the religious scholars of the age should establish and govern the desired Islamic State. But the key passage inIslamic Government clearly opened the door for his rule: “If a worthy individual possessing [the qualities of knowledge of the law and justice] arises and establishes a government, he will possess the same authority as the [Prophet Muhammad] in the administration of society, and it will be the duty of all people to obey him.”[1] In practice, Khomeini had taken power at the end of a populist revolution with strong Marxist and populist overtones, and he blended his theology with the ideology of that revolution to consolidate his power. Thus in March he held a country-wide referendum on the question: “Do you want the monarchy to be replaced by an Islamic Republic?” It passed with 98% of the 20 million votes cast. Only after that referendum (which had no real basis in the argumentation supporting the idea of an Islamic Republic) did Khomeini declare, on April 1, 1979, the official establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The first Constitution of the IRI was approved by referendum in December 1979, establishing Khomeini as the Supreme Leader of an Islamist state explicitly justified and organized by the principles of the guardianship of the jurisprudent (velayat-e faqih).
The sanitizing of Rouhani is a necessary fiction for those who want to believe that Iran will, in any way, change. Ruhani's moderation is a means Parsi by which can pretend that Rouhani will appoint enough moderates to push back against Khameini. But the moderation of Rouhani and the power of Iran's president are more the results of wishful thinking than of any critical thinking.

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