On June 18, 2021, Ebrahim Raisi was elected President of Iran. It was not the first time he had run, but it was the first time he had won. The first time he ran, he was defeated by the moderate Hassan Rouhani.
But there were influential Americans who had hoped the hardline Raisi would win. In 2017, Elliott Abrams, who would later be Trump’s special representative for Iran, published an article in which he called Raisi "as hard-line an Iranian cleric as one can find." He then outlined a resume of his sins, including serving as a judge on the "Death Commissions" that executed thousands of political prisoners, for which he is sanctioned by the U.S. Unexpectedly, that resume would win Raisi, not Abrams’ condemnation, but his endorsement. "How could any American possibly want him to win?" Abrams asked. "It’s simple. Raisi is the true face of the Islamic Republic….We are better off…when there are no illusions about Iran’s regime and the men who lead it." America benefits from a hardliner because you can market taking out or confronting a hardliner to the world.
But hardliners like Raisi are not the "true face of the Islamic Republic." After the early days following the revolution, most Iranian elections have put moderates, not hardliners, in power. Hashemi Rafsanjani was a moderate, and he was followed by the moderate Mohammad Katami. The chain of moderate rule that linked to Hassan Rouhani’s two elections was interrupted only by the more hardline Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The true face of the Islamic Republic, including the past two terms under Rouhani, has been moderates.
The reformist Rouhani would stake his presidency on the promise that Iran could escape international isolation by trustingly entering into negotiations with the international community. But Donald Trump would cripple that promise. The simple foundation of the JCPOA nuclear agreement was that if Iran continued to be in compliance with the limitations on its nuclear program, the US had to continue to honor the agreement and lift sanctions. If Iran was not in compliance, then – and only then – could the US pull out of the agreement and snap back sanctions. But Iran was completely and consistently in compliance with their commitments under the agreement, as verified by eleven consecutive International Atomic Energy Agency reports. Iran kept its promise; America broke its promise. Iranian hardliner reminders that they had always said America would repay honest diplomacy with broken promises began to discredit Rouhani and the moderates.
Rouhani and Iran responded by patiently waiting out Trump’s term in the promised expectation that Biden would bring America back in line with its obligations. Instead, Biden sounded the discrediting death knell for the moderates by his procrastination in returning to the talks.
With that death knell, the moderates were buried before the ballot. Fourteen moderates were barred from running by the Guardian Council, the constitutional body that approves candidates for elections. The moderates’ mass grave was dug by Biden’s delay of what would have been an easy return to negotiations and by his refusal to claw back the illegal sanctions in favor of slowing down the negotiations.
It was only with Trump and Biden’s killing of the nuclear deal and its effects of killing the hope of escaping isolation and crushing the Iranian economy that the hardliners and the Guardian Council were able to discredit and disappear the moderates. In a personal correspondence, Iran expert and Executive Vice President of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft Trita Parsi told me that the hardliners have consistently tried to eliminate moderate candidates. But the extent of their cleansing and the clear perception that they could get away with it this time was new, Parsi said. "Now, much thanks to Trump’s decimation of the Iranian middle class and delegitimization of the argument that engagement with the US will pay off, they had the strength to openly commit fraud and get away with it."
By discrediting the promise that the bars of Iranian isolation could be opened by opening up diplomacy with the US, Trump and Biden discredited the Iranian moderates. That discrediting closed the doors to their candidacy in the election, changed the true face of Iran, and brought the hardliners into power.
The hardliners were vindicated. They could claim wisdom and prescience because they were waiting for the American betrayal to happen. And they knew it would happen because it had happened before: every time before.
In 1989, Hashemi Rafsanjani became president of Iran. Like his protégé, Hassan Rouhani, he wanted to break out of international isolation and improve relations with the US Rafsanjani promised the US that Iran would exert its regional influence and intervene to help win the release of American hostages being held in Lebanon. President H.W. Bush promised that, in return, Iran’s help would "be long remembered" and that "goodwill begets goodwill." But it wasn’t, and it didn’t. Like today, Iran did what it promised to do; America did not do what it promised to do. Instead, Bush betrayed Rafsanjani and did nothing in return: the Americans sent word that Rafsanjani should expect no American reciprocation. The moderates were discredited.
Rafsanjani would attempt the moderate approach one more time. When Iraq invaded Kuwait, he would keep Iran officially neutral. But the official neutrality was really siding with the US While Iran rejected Iraqi pleas for help on the grounds of that neutrality, they allowed the US to use Iranian airspace. Once again, though, the US failed to return good will for good will. Though Rafsanjani had hoped to end Iran’s international isolation by helping the Americans, when the US convened the Israeli-Palestinian Madrid Conference, they invited nearly every affected nation, including Israel, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, but snubbed Iran, continuing its international isolation.
Seyyed Mohammad Khatami, the next moderate president, attempted the same moderate approach. He rejected terrorism; accepted a two-state solution, implicitly recognizing the State of Israel; aided the US in its fight against the Taliban and al-Qaeda; played what Trita Parsi has called an absolutely crucial role in setting up Afghanistan’s post-Taliban government and arrested hundreds of al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters who escaped across its borders. President George W. Bush offered only a membership in the Axis of Evil in return. Khatami was stunned. The hardliners were vindicated. The moderates were discredited.
The true face of Iran is not the face of a hardliner. But there is a long history of America making its worst dreams come true by breaking its promises to moderate Iranian presidents, discrediting the moderates and helping hardliners into power. With the discrediting of Rouhani and the election of Raisi, the US has, once again, made its nightmare come true.
Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.