Iran’s Rouhani: He’s no Gorbachev


Analogies between Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s negotiations with Iran and the negotiations the Reagan administration undertook with the Soviet Union have become commonplace. But is Hassan Rouhani really another Mikhail Gorbachev — another leader of a dictatorship with whom the U.S. can (and should) “do business,” in Margaret Thatcher’s phrase?

Recall that Gorbachev was not just interested in achieving arms reductions with the U.S. He was intent on a thorough reform of Russian society. The Encyclopaedia Britannica summarizes his initiatives: “Under his new policy of glasnost (“openness”), a major cultural thaw took place: freedoms of expression and of information were significantly expanded; the press and broadcasting were allowed unprecedented candor in their reportage and criticism; and the country’s legacy of Stalinist totalitarian rule was eventually completely repudiated by the government. Under Gorbachev’s policy of perestroika (“restructuring”), the first modest attempts to democratize the Soviet political system were undertaken; multi-candidate contests and the secret ballot were introduced in some elections to party and government posts.”

The success of these policies was limited because they were resisted by the apparatchiks — the communist bureaucrats — but there is no question that Gorbachev sent a signal that the old days of repression at home and adventurism abroad were at an end. From his first day in office in 1985, he was intent on pulling Soviet troops out of Afghanistan, a goal he achieved in 1989.


That same year, as revolts rippled across Eastern Europe, Gorbachev allowed the fall of communist regimes from East Berlin to Warsaw. Instead of sending the Red Army to impose order, he pulled out Soviet troops and allowed democracy to blossom and the Cold War to end.

Have there been any similar indications of a change of heart on the part of Rouhani and his master, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei? Hardly.

In fact Khamenei just gave a firebreathing speech calling Israel “the rabid dog of the region” and claiming it was “doomed to extinction.” He also accused the U.S. of “inhuman deeds,” such as the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Perhaps this can be dismissed, as the Obama administration seems to prefer, as just “uncomfortable” rhetoric, even if the rhetoric of leaders such as Hitler, Stalin and Mao has often proved an accurate guide to their actions. But there aren’t many actions to point to, either, on the part of the Iranian leadership to indicate that they have decided to adopt a kinder, gentler path.

Obama administration officials have been eager to cite claims from the U.S. intelligence community that Iran has slowed its enrichment of uranium. But, leaving aside the question of whether American intelligence analysts have any better grasp of the Iranian program than they had of the Iraqi WMD program, it is eminently possible, as Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu argues, that the slowdown is occurring simply because the mullahs already have all the capacity they need to produce a bomb.

Meanwhile, in Syria — roughly equivalent for Iran today to Afghanistan for the Soviet Union in the 1980s — there is no indication that Tehran is backing off from its support for the inhumane attacks of President Bashar Assad on his own people. To the contrary, all indications are that Iranian support for Assad, much of it delivered through the militant group Hezbollah, continues to flow unabated, notwithstanding the blowback Iran suffered this week when Sunni militants blew up its Beirut embassy. More than 100,000 Syrians have died and more continue to perish every day.

Nor is there much indication of Iran ending its war on internal dissent. The United Nations’ special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, Ahmed Shaheed, recently told the General Assembly that while Iran has released roughly a dozen “prisoners of conscience,” hundreds more remain in detention, many of them with “inadequate provision of food, water and medical treatment.”


“Inhuman punishments such as stoning and amputation” also remain in use, and 724 executions took place between January 2012 and June 2013, with nearly 150 executions reported in the last three months alone, with Rouhani in office. Moreover, Shaheed noted, “some 15 journalists have been arrested since January 2013 (rendering a total of some 70 media personnel and bloggers in detention); approximately 67 Internet cafes were closed in July alone, and up to 5 million websites are reportedly blocked.”

Finally, “members of religious minority groups, including Baha’i, Christians, Sunni Muslims and Yarsan also continue to face severe restrictions of their rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association; while ethnic, linguistic, and other minorities continue to see their rights violated in law and in practice.”

This condemnation is coming, mind you, not from Israeli diplomats or American neocons supposedly bent on war with Iran. Shaheed is a former foreign minister of the Maldives who is now a visiting professor at City University of New York-Brooklyn College and at the University of Essex in Britain, hardly the credentials of a rabid anti-Iran hawk.

His report on Iran’s human rights violations is withering, and taken with other evidence, it provides no support for the theory that Rouhani and Khamenei are bent, as Gorbachev was, on a fundamental restructuring of a repressive system. They might be willing to temporarily suspend their nuclear program in return for sanctions relief, but there is no sign they are willing to end their cold war against the West, as Gorbachev did, which would require dismantling the entire nuclear program.

Max Boot is a contributing writer to Opinion, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present.”