If President Donald Trump, or anyone else, wish to make a deal with the present regime in Tehran, the man they should talk to is Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (left), not Hassan Rouhani (right), an actor playing the president. (Image source: khamenei.ir)
For a few hours last weekend, political circles in Tehran were seized with speculative fever regarding a possible meeting between US President Donald Trump and the Islamic Republic's President Hassan Rouhani. Trump had announced in Biarritz, where the G7's farcical summit was held, that he would be prepared to meet the Iranian mullah and believed that could happen soon. For his part, Rouhani went on TV to declare readiness to meet "anyone", with no ifs and buts.
One "reformist" analyst phoned me in the middle of night Paris time to "inform" me that, with help from Trump, his faction was about to win a decisive victory over the "hardline" faction led by Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei.
In his narrative, Rouhani would meet Trump in September when both are to attend the United Nations' General Assembly in New York. They would establish a "roadmap" leading to an agreement incorporating the Obama "nuke deal" plus additional demands by Trump. That, in turn, would lead to a lifting of US sanctions, saving the Iranian economy from a meltdown.
The "miracle" would coincide with the next general election in Iran and a secure landslide victory for "reformists". That, in turn, would enable them to press for Khamenei's retirement and replacement by Rouhani, while Muhammad-Javad Zarif, the "heroic" foreign minister, throws his hat, since he has no turban, into the ring for the presidency. With Khamenei and his "Russophile" faction eliminated, the "New York Boys" would put Iran on a new trajectory as the United States' key partner in the Middle East.
What was remarkable in that narrative was how stale it was.
Weeks after the mullahs seized power, the Carter administration in Washington identified Mehdi Bazargan, Khomeini's first prime minister, as "the man with whom we can work."
After he was kicked out, attention was turned to more ephemeral figures such as Ayatollah Muhammad Beheshti, Abol-Hasaan Banisadr and Sadeq Ghotbzadeh who were supposed to lead Iran out of its revolutionary phase into normality, whatever that meant.
With Ayatollah Khomeini, supposedly too old to last long, these were the men who would shape Iran's Thermidor, emerging from the reign of terror. Fariba Adelkhah, then a young researcher in Paris and later an ardent apologist for the Islamic Republic, even wrote a book bearing the title "Iranian Thermidor". (She is now a hostage in Tehran held by the very men she had so passionately defended in the French media.)
Over the years, we heard similar analyses from the Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani faction in the 1980s, the Muhammad Khatami circle in the1990, and the Larijani brothers in 2004. Both President George W Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair told me at different times that they had identified "men with whom we can work" in Tehran and that the key to success was getting rid of Khamenei and his "hardliners."
At one point, the Reagan administration saw Rafsanjani, a wily mullah-cum-businessman, as the Iranian version of Deng Xiaoping. Tony Blair, no doubt under Jack Straw's influence, saw Khatami, a middling mullah and a wannabe intellectual, as the "Iranian Gorbachev".
As early as 2004, both the British and the French saw Rouhani as the man capable of delivering what Rafsanjani and Khatami had promised but failed to deliver. The horse on which John Kerry put his bet was Muhammad-Javad Zarif, whose team of "New York Boys" provided Rouhani with a "liberal" varnish.
Western analysts and their imitators inside Iran missed two crucial points.
The first was that, like most revolutionary regimes, the Khomeinist outfit had no mechanism for reform in the direction desired by the Iranian middle classes and the Western powers. Thus, even if its leaders tried to introduce reforms they would be doomed to failure. Lenin tried that in the 1920s with his New Economic Policy (NEP) that, instead of liberalizing the Soviet system, produced Josef Stalin. Mao Zedong's reform project, known as "The 100 Flowers," morphed into the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, millions of deaths and further hardening of the Communist regime. Khomeini himself attempted a similar move with his 8-Points reform project in 1981, leading to mass executions in 1988. In the Islamic Republic, the number of executions and political prisoners has always risen under "reformist" presidents such as Khatami and Rouhani.
The second point Western powers ignore is that Iranians today are divided into two broad camps, obviously with subdivisions within each camp. One camp consists of those, perhaps even a majority today, who are disillusioned with the Islamic Revolution and seek ways of closing its chapter as soon as possible. The idea of "change within the regime" appeals to some among them but has never offered a credible political platform from which to attempt a seizure of power within the regime.
In the second camp, we find all those who, for different reasons, are still committed to the Khomeinist Revolution. In that camp the "hardliners" have been and, I believe remain, in a majority. Thus, whether we like it or not, it is Khamenei, and not Rafsanjani, Khatami or Rouhani, who set the tune in the Islamic Republic. In fact, each time Western powers made a deal with the Islamic Republic it was ultimately with Khomeini and, after him, Khamenei. It was Khomeini who drunk the "poison chalice" by ending the war with Iraq, not Rafsanjani who played "strongman" at the time.
The Obama "nuke deal" started with negotiations that Khamenei ordered before Rouhani became president. The result, the JCPOA (Barjam in Persian), was adopted after Khamenei gave his tacit consent.
Thus if Trump, or anyone else, wish to make a deal with the present regime in Tehran, the man they should talk to is Khamenei, not Rouhani, an actor playing the president. On Tuesday, that fact was demonstrated by Khamenei ordering Rouhani to eat humble pie and publicly recant on his boast about a summit with Trump.
The "hardline vs. moderate" comedy played in Tehran reminds me of the French Opera Buffa in which two seductive girls adopt opposite profiles. "No-no-Nanette" always says no to admirers but she ends up in bed with all of them. In contrast, "Yes-yes Yolanda" offers tantalizing "yes" but never goes the whole way. In the end, we find out that the two are, in fact, just one creature in two disguises, a witch bent on doing mischief.
Trump has been warned!
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. He is the Chairman of Gatestone Europe.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.