WASHINGTON — The election of relatively moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani to the presidency of Iran has scrambled the talking points in Washington's fraught Iran debate, which had centered for years on whether the man Rouhani will replace, the deliberately provocative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, mattered.
Ahmadinejad made global headlines for denying the Holocaust, calling for Israel to be eradicated, and claiming there are no gays or lesbians in Iran, and American hawks made him the poster child for their campaign for military action against the Islamic Republic. Washington's Iran doves, by contrast, dismissed Ahmadinejad and argued that the real power lies with the Iran's mullahs. Now, with a low-key new president, the roles have flipped, and those who once argued that the presidency of Iran is meaningless when it belonged to Ahmadinejad are now pointing to Rouhani as a sign of change.
"People in DC looking for black and white, sound bite-y stuff to say about other countries' politics: always a thing," said Heather Hurlburt, who heads the National Security Network, a Democratic group, in an email. "People who used to argue that Ahmadinejad was the problem and now say it doesn't matter who the president is are definitely a thing."
"The way I would square the circle is that competition in Iranian politics and policy is managed by the Supreme Leader," Hurlburt said. "It is interesting and hopeful that someone with the views was allowed to emerge, got so much popular support, and followed up his election by conciliatory rhetoric."
After the brutal crackdown following the fraudulent 2009 elections that installed Ahmadinejad, Western observers aren't sure how to react to an election in which the Ayatollah Khamenei has allowed someone who isn't his own handpicked candidate to become the president. But those making the case for diplomacy cast it as a hopeful sign.
"The Iranians are so good at surprising us and doing things what few people expected," said Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council, a group that has argued for greater diplomacy with Iran. "People were saying that even if [Rouhani] wins, Khamenei won't permit it. But most of the tampering occured prior to the election," when the mullahs prevented several candidates from running in the first place.
This line of argument has drawn a swift response from conservatives who had focused for years on publicizing Ahmadinejad's threats and bluster.
"Because of Ahmadinejad's confrontational approach, the pro-engagement camp had no option but to downplay the significance of the Iranian presidency itself. Now that the president is a 'moderate,' now that they have someone who's probably not going to make the same kind of statements about confronting Israel and the West that Ahmadinejad did, the pro-engagement faction has instantly forgotten that they just spent the last eight years arguing that the Iranian presidency has no power," said the executive director of the Emergency Committee for Israel, Noah Pollak.
And the conservative scholar Max Boot wrote in Commentary that the hopes inspired by Rouhani fly "in the face of all the evidence that the real decision-maker in Iran is not the figurehead president but the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei."
Though Rouhani occupies a centrist space in terms of Iranian politics, that is a relative measure, as only stalwarts of the revolutionary regime were permitted on the ballot. And he is certainly no outsider; he's been a member of the Supreme National Security Council since 1989 and was the head of it for 16 years, indicating that Khamenei at least trusts him enough to keep a high-ranking national security post. Brookings Iran expert Suzanne Maloney argued that though Khamenei may not have seen Rouhani's election coming, he allowed it to happen because he saw Rouhani could be useful to him: "Perhaps allowing Rouhani's victory is his way of empowering a conciliator to repair Iran's frayed relations with the world and find some resolution to the nuclear dispute that enables the country to revive oil exports and resume normal trade."
"People who were talking about Ahmadinejad as if he ran the entire show are now very dismissive of the importance of Rouhani," said Parsi. The Western perception of the Iranian president's role "has never been black and white," Parsi said.
"You can go back and even look at what people were saying about Ahmadinejad — people were criticizing the idea that he'd become so important," Parsi said. "The same people who said he was important were saying that the previous president was not important. It's a more nuanced picture. There aren't good sound bites."