Iran’s bombastic former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was notorious for calling the massacre of 6 million Jews in World War II a “myth.” Ahmadinejad, whose presidential term ended in August, also flouted UN Security resolutions about Iran’s nuclear program, dismissing them as “insignificant”.
It is only with this background of exaggerated rhetoric and the denial of evident facts in Ahmadinejad’s era that the comments and acts of his successors gain meaning and importance. Because Ahmadinejad denied the Holocaust, Iran’s new foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, sounded moderate when he denounced Hitler’s attempt to exterminate the Jews as s “horrifying tragedy.” His words made headlines and were perceived as a breakthrough by the observers. Zarif’s comments attracted more attention when the “hardliners” in Iran’s parliament summoned him for a meeting to explain his comments. Even the equivocal comments by Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, have been considered by many as a diplomatic development in Iran.
The question is the dynamics of the relations between the “hardliner” Ahmadinejad and the “moderate” Rouhani and Zarif. Most observers and experts on Iran consider the two factions within the mullahs’ regime as rivals fighting over important issues. Under such analyses, the factions are antagonistic: they act contrary to each other, and support for one faction weakens the other faction. However, there seems to be an actual harmony that underpins the “hardliner-moderate” divide. All the signs of perceived moderation in Rouhani’s administration would be meaningless without the background of Ahmadinejad’s legacy. The period of defiance in the mullahs’ foreign policy was needed to develop the nuclear program without being responsive to the legitimate demands of the international community. At the same time, Ahmadinejad’s approach as a “hardliner” with such notorious comments as the one about the Holocaust lowers the standards for a “moderate” successor.
It is generally assumed that there is a power struggle between the “hardliners” and the “moderates” within the mullahs’ regime that explains the general picture of Iran affairs both at the domestic and foreign policy levels. Ahmadinejad is considered to be the classic example of a “hardliner”. His two terms were characterized by a recalcitrant attitude in both the domestic affairs and in the foreign policies, including the nuclear issue. His presidency after a “moderate” Mohammad Khatami, is considered to be the result of a conservative backlash after a period of moderation, according to the paradigm of “hardliner-moderate” dichotomy. However, the story seems to be missing something important. After the 2002 revelations by the National Council of Resistance of Iran about the clandestine nuclear facilities in Arak and Natanz, the “moderate” Khatami was no longer a good fit for the regime.
A “moderate” president who pretended to be open to dialogue with the world could not justify and defend the mullahs’ exposed nuclear program. To continue their strategically important program, the mullahs needed to shift gear from the “moderate” to the “hardliner” mode. Ahmadinejad was not Khatami’s rival: he was his best friend who was able to accomplish for the regime what Khatami, thanks to the revelations of the Iranian opposition, was no longer able to do.
For a period of eight years, and partly because of the appeasement policies of the United States, the mullahs boldly developed their nuclear program in the face of the discontentment of the international community. At the same time, Ahmadinejad unleashed his vehemence against the Jews and
Israel. He also mocked the UN resolutions as “worthless pieces of junk”. In his period, Iran defiantly continued its nuclear program in spite of many Security Council resolutions. In an effective brinkmanship policy, the mullahs pushed forward their existentially important nuclear program to the point of provoking a military response. As soon as a military strike by Israel became a realistic threat, the mullahs needed to shift from “hardliner” to “moderate.” But the “moderate” Rouhani is not a rival of the “hardliner” Ahmadinejad: he simply intends to do what Ahmadinejad was no longer able to do for the regime.
It is only within the context of a harmonious and well-planned succession of the “hardliners” and the “moderates” that we can understand the significance of Ahmadinejad’s provocatively harsh rhetoric. As long as the defiant approach was working well and hit no significant obstacle, the mullahs went fast forward with Ahmadinejad. Because the mullahs knew that sometime in the future the policy might come to an end– most likely because of an existential military threat — they needed a smooth transition to a “moderate” mode. In this context, nothing better than the portrayal of a “hardliner” Ahmadinejad could make the job of a “moderate” successor easier. Rouhani only needed to acknowledge the Holocaust, express a willingness to negotiate over the nuclear issue, and recognize the importance of the Security Council resolutions. This is exactly what happened with Rouhani and his team. In the absence of any credible sign of moderateness in domestic or foreign policy, the only evidence presented for the mild nature of Rouhani has been the acknowledgement of the Holocaust, cessation of the threat to wipe any country off the map, and willingness to make a deal on the nuclear issue.
“Hardliner” Ahmadinejad and his notorious legacy have been a great asset both for the regime in general and for the “moderate” successors in particular. In addition to his enormous contribution to the development of the mullahs’ nuclear program during his term, Ahmadinejad’s extravagant rhetoric on subjects such as the Holocaust, Israel, and the UN Security Council resolutions has made the task of selling his successors as “moderates” very simple: just deny what Ahmadinejad said, and that is it! If there were no Ahmadinejad with his rabble-rousing rhetoric, then acknowledgement of the Holocaust by the mullahs would not signify any important turn in Iran’s policies towards “moderateness”.
Dr. Cyrus Samet is Policy Director for Organization of Iranian-American Communities (www.oiac.org) and President of Iranian-American Professionals and Scholars in Maryland