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Iran’s Election Is ‘Revenge for Argo’

The production value of the election of Hassan Rouhani

Adam Chandler
June 17, 2013
Hassan Rouhani.(Mojtaba Salimi)
Hassan Rouhani.(Mojtaba Salimi)

Yesterday I was lounging in the garden of a Brooklyn coffeeshop–admittedly, the beginning of a truly terrible story–when I ran into a friend of mine on what appeared to be a date. After he came over to say hello and introduced me to his companion, I knew for sure he was on a date because he mentioned Iran’s presidential election, an immediate red flag for someone I’ve never even talked domestic politics with.

Gesturing to my newspaper, he said that he read that Iran had elected this new moderate president and that it seemed like an exciting development. Perhaps, he had stumbled across the front page of the Times, where Thomas Erdbrink led with this sentence:

In a striking repudiation of the ultraconservatives who wield power in Iran, voters here overwhelmingly elected a mild-mannered cleric who advocates greater personal freedoms and a more conciliatory approach to the world.

“This guy, Rouhani,” he said.

His date perked up. She was either impressed or had been bitten by a mosquito. For whatever reason, he asked me for my thoughts about it. I told him I had been pretty skeptical about the whole thing and when he asked why, I tried to explain that the election’s eight presidential candidates had been culled from a pool of hundreds by a shadowy council and had been screened by the Ayatollah, who ran the country anyway and had the ultimate say on the most important issues.

I mentioned I had just read something insightful about how the regime actually wanted this guy Rouhani to win. I paraphrased this part of story:

Rouhani’s win election should not be seen as a dramatic sign that Iran will change its line regarding either its nuclear policy or its involvement in Middle Eastern conflicts. Despite Rouhani’s declarations in the past that may suggest he seeks flexibility in the nuclear project, the reality in Iran is that these matters will remain in the hands of Khamenei and the men of the Revolutionary Guard.

He was the only cleric allowed to run in the race, and will now try to bring the public, including the Tehran elites, closer to the regime of the Ayatollahs – of which he is one of the most outstanding products.

“So,” my friend joked, “This is Iran’s revenge for Argo.”

I didn’t know what he meant, but I laughed anyway and didn’t push back and let the two decamp for a table.

Of course, I spent the next few minutes trying to make sense of his analogy. For those who missed out on last year’s Academy Award winner for Best Picture, Argo is based on a true story about six American hostages, who escaped from Iran after the overthrow of the Shah in 1979. With the help of the CIA and some Iranians, the six had formulated a cover story, pretending to be members of a Canadian film crew scouting a sci-fi film in Iran. (As we reported earlier this year, Iran is said to be funding a film of its own to correct Argo‘s perceived inaccuracies. Can’t wait!)

While Thomas Erdbrink had been a little too enthusiastic about Iran’s election, he had used a phrase to describe the potential downside of Rouhani’s election, which now gave the regime a “patina of legitimacy” in the form of a “moderate” candidate, who was elected by a clear majority and spoke of improving ties with the West.

In other words, not only was the election a show for the Iranian people, who had enthusiastically chosen the less bombastic candidate from a vetted group of candidates, but they had also staged an election that was meant to fool the rest of the world. This seemed like a heavy conclusion to reach, but a glance around wasn’t inspiring. Sharif Husseini, a member of Iran’s Parliament, immediately said that “nothing would change,” especially on the issue of Iran’s nuclear policy, adding:

“All these policies have been decided by the supreme leader.”

In comments he made about Iran’s nuclear program back in 2004, Rouhani himself may have tipped his hand about what the patina of legitimacy provided by a moderate can do for a country being pressed from the outside:

“While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the facility in Isfahan,” he said. “In fact, by creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work in Isfahan,” a crucial Iranian nuclear facility.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was less sanguine about it:

Let us not delude ourselves,” Netanyahu said. “The international community must not become caught up in wishes and be tempted to relax the pressure on Iran to stop its nuclear program. It must be remembered that the Iranian ruler, at the outset, disqualified candidates who did not fit his extremist outlook and from among those whose candidacies he allowed was elected the candidate who was seen as less identified with the regime, who still defines the State of Israel [in an address last year] as ‘the great Zionist Satan.’”

While a few noted commenters see Rouhani’s election as an opportunity to break new ground with Iran or as a chance to President Obama to reach a new nuclear deal with Iran, Sohrab Ahmari writes convincingly against such optimism.

Going back to Argo, the saddest statistic coming out of this election is that Iran, whose economy has been heavily crushed as international sanctions try to slow the country’s dangerous nuclear program, has a population of 70 million; two-thirds of that 70 million is under the age of 35.

In other words, an unfathomable majority of the country was born after the tumult of 1979 and has no way of knowing what their country was like before it became a corrupt theocracy–where voters elect a cover story for their unelected leader.

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.