I know what you're thinking: Why would any American favor Ibrahim Raisi, the hardest-line candidate for Iran's presidency in the May 19 election, over the incumbent Hassan Rouhani, who is widely praised in world capitals as a moderate? There are two ...
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I know what you’re thinking: Why would any American favor Ibrahim Raisi, the hardest-line candidate for Iran’s presidency in the May 19 election, over the incumbent Hassan Rouhani, who is widely praised in world capitals as a moderate?
There are two reasons, and the first is that Rouhani is not a moderate—or is at best a moderate utterly without influence.
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Consider both Iran’s foreign and domestic policies during Rouhani’s five years in office. On the domestic side, there has been zero improvement on human rights. The two reformist candidates in the 2009 presidential election, Mehdi Karroubi and Mir-Hossein Moussavi, were placed under house arrest in 2011. When Rouhani was elected president in 2013 everyone expected they’d be released—and indeed during his campaign he had promised to get them released. But they have not been. Persecution of the Baha’i has not moderated one iota under Rouhani, and the entire Baha’i community leadership is this week completing nine years in prison. Human Rights Watch reports that Rouhani:
has not delivered on his campaign promise of greater respect for civil and political rights. Executions, especially for drug-related offenses, continued at a high rate…. Hundreds of websites, including social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, remained blocked in Iran. The intelligence apparatus heavily monitored citizens’ activities on social media. Hundreds of social media users, in particular on the Telegram messaging application and Instagram have been summoned or arrested by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps for commenting on controversial issues, including fashion.
Amnesty International says:
The authorities heavily suppressed the rights to freedom of expression, association, peaceful assembly and religious belief, arresting and imprisoning peaceful critics and others after grossly unfair trials before Revolutionary Courts. Torture and other ill-treatment of detainees remained common and widespread, and were committed with impunity. Floggings, amputations and other cruel punishments continued to be applied. Members of religious and ethnic minorities faced discrimination and persecution. Women and girls faced pervasive violence and discrimination.
There are only two ways, again, to explain Rouhani’s absolute failure to improve the human rights situation in Iran: He does not care, or he is powerless.
Rouhani is no more “moderate” on foreign policy. During his years in office, Iran has become ever more aggressive in the Middle East. Its campaign against the government of Bahrain, once consisting only of hostile broadcasting, now includes “heavily armed militant cells supplied and funded, officials say, by Iran,” according to The Washington Post. Last October, Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen fired missiles likely supplied by Iran at U.S. Navy vessels. Tens of thousands of Iranians are now fighting in Iraq. Not only Quds Force fighters but Revolutionary Guard ground units are now fighting in Syria. As one analyst put it, since the nuclear deal with Iran in 2015, “significant transformation in Iran’s military is actively occurring, which suggests a manifestation of Iran’s military empire across the region, more aggressive foreign policy and a reassertion of Tehran’s regional supremacy.”
What all of these developments have in common is that they have been occurring during Rouhani’s presidency. Once again, he is either in favor of these aggressive moves or powerless to stop them. Either he is not a “moderate” in reality, or he is a façade the regime has put in place to suggest a moderation that does not in reality exist.
And now to Raisi. He is running as, well, as Ebrahim Raisi—as hard-line an Iranian cleric as one can find. For example, in April he said that Americans today fear Iran. “This is the solution. The solution is not backing down. We must force them to retreat.” No nonsense about compromises or, as Barack Obama once put it, “an equilibrium in the region” where Iran, the Saudis and others “share” the Middle East. Who is Raisi? In Iran he is best known for his service on the “Death Commissions” as one of four judges who oversaw the executions of 4,000 to 5,000 political prisoners in 1988. The deputy supreme leader at that time, Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, called those executions “the biggest crime in the history of the Islamic Republic.” The Economist described it this way:
Prisoners, including women and teenagers, were loaded onto forklift trucks and hanged from cranes and beams in groups of five or six at half-hourly intervals all day long. Others were killed by firing squad. Those not executed were subjected to torture. The victims were intellectuals, students, left-wingers, members of the People's Mojahedin Organisation of Iran (MEK), other opposition parties and ethnic and religious minorities. Many had originally been sentenced for non-violent offences such as distributing newspapers and leaflets, taking part in demonstrations or collecting funds for prisoners' families, according to a report published by Amnesty International, an NGO, in 1990.
That was a long time ago, but Raisi has not changed. In 2010, for example, as deputy chief of Iran’s judiciary he oversaw the execution of nine protesters—in the face of criticism by reformers like Moussavi.
So now Raisi is running for president, at age 57. If he wins, he will be a prime candidate to succeed the current supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. How could any American possibly want him to win?
It’s simple. Raisi is the true face of the Islamic Republic, while Rouhani is a façade. Rouhani has shown himself powerless to effect any change in the regime’s conduct and his only role is to mislead the West into thinking “moderates” are in charge. We are far better off, as we were when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was president, when there are no illusions about Iran’s regime and the men who lead it.
If there is a fair election Rouhani will most likely win, and then we can expect a barrage of newspaper stories about how Iran is moderating, modernizing and changing—so we must not push it too hard, and should instead help Rouhani improve Iran’s economy. This is the 2017 equivalent of arguments about helping “moderates in the Kremlin” at the height of the Cold War and equally foolish. While it would be useful to empower true moderates, tough policies that make hostile regimes like those of the USSR or Iran pay a high price for repression and aggression are far more likely to help moderates than weak policies that mean the regimes pay no price at all.
If Raisi wins, two things will happen. First, it will be evident—especially to Iranians—that the election was stolen, so the Iranian people will be that much more alienated from their rulers. The day the regime falls will have been brought that much closer. And second, the entire world will have a much clearer view of the nature of that regime today.
It’s pretty clear this is not the view in the mainstream media in the West, nor of the various foreign ministries and intelligence agencies—including our own. Everyone seems to be rooting for Rouhani.
Not me. Raisi for president!
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Elliott Abrams is senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C. He served as a deputy national security adviser in the administration of George W. Bush.
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