You don't hear that much these days about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the former Iranian president whose penchant for denying the Holocaust at every opportunity became legendary.
If conventional wisdom is to be taken at face value, the reason for that is simple: the era of Ahmadinejad came to an end in 2013, when he was replaced by the current incumbent, Hassan Rouhani. Where a semi-literate fanatic once reigned, there is now in his place an avuncular model of good sense. Iran's main aim presently, it follows, is to reintegrate itself into the international system through trade and renewed foreign investment.
It's this deeply faulty thinking that informs both the nuclear deal with Iran reached last year as well as the lion's share of media coverage of the recent Iranian parliamentary elections. Iran, we are told, is divided between "hardliners" and "moderates." The duty of the West is to support the "moderates," whose electoral triumph is a timely demonstration that the engagement strategy with Tehran is paying off.
But you can, and perhaps should, look at this situation entirely differently. The Islamic Republic has good reason to think fondly of Ahmadinejad, no matter how much the outside world insists that he was just an irritating blip on the road to lucrative deals with German car manufacturers and French industrialists. After all, it was Ahmadinejad who in 2009 led the brutal charge—at the behest of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps—against the Iranian democracy movement.
Though there were more people demonstrating in the streets in 2009 than even in 1979, when the Islamist revolution brought down the Shah, Western policymakers act as if none of that ever happened. Such airbrushing of history allows them to cast Rouhani, whose fealty to the Iranian variant of Islamist rule has never wavered, as a "moderate."
Rather, as Ahmadinejad would remember well, the true moderates are exiled, or dead, or operating underground, or languishing in monstrous jails like Tehran's Evin Prison. Moreover, the fact that a majority of candidates for both parliament and the "Assembly of Experts" were rejected by the Guardians Council shows what a travesty of democracy these elections are.
With Rouhani in power, the traditional understanding of what constitutes a "moderate" has been stretched beyond recognition. To be a "moderate" in Iran these days, you don't have to disavow the regime's military and operational backing, in concert with Russia, for the deranged Bashar al-Assad dictatorship in Syria. You don't have to pledge that $150 billion in recouped funds from sanctions relief will be spent on public health or children's literacy programs, instead of Shi'a terrorist organizations in Iraq and Lebanon. You don't have to stop roaring slogans like "Death to Israel!" and "Death to America!" at public demonstrations. All that is required for exemption from "hardliner" status is a broad show of support for the nuclear deal.
Thus does Iran play its role in maintaining the fiction that the nuclear deal will usher in an era of peace, with Tehran sufficiently incentivized to acknowledge the mild restrictions on its nuclear development negotiated in Geneva. Ultimately, it's all based on faith that Iran's regime will never weaponize its nuclear program.
U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), a former chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, put it eloquently just after the deal was announced. "This deal is based on hope," Menendez said. "Hope that when the nuclear sunset clause expires, Iran will have succumbed to the benefits of commerce and global integration. Hope that the hardliners will have lost their power and the revolution will end its hegemonic goals. And hope that the regime will allow the Iranian people to decide their fate. Hope is part of human nature, but unfortunately it is not a national security strategy."
Examining his words more closely, one might say that Menendez was being overly generous. What passes for a strategy is predicated on the belief that Iran will grab at everything it can except for a nuclear bomb, and that's something we can live with. That means Iran will continue, with outside acquiescence, sponsoring Assad's carnage in Syria, confident that the U.S. and Europe will do nothing to counter the tyrant's boast to a German broadcaster that the "restraint" he is supposedly showing "has a limit." (For Assad, there are no limits, as he proved when he unleashed chemical weapons on his own population.) In this context, Iran's role is to ensure that its interest in regional domination lies at the heart of Assad's governing doctrine. Overall, the preservation and management of this axis is the task of Russia, whose footprint over this part of the Middle East has expanded in tandem with America's withdrawal.
The important point to remember is that America hasn't lost all of its leverage when it comes to reigning in Iran, assuming it can summon the political will to do so. As one Iran expert told me, "We're talking about a $3 trillion economy against a $180 billion economy." European banks will be highly cautious in dealings with Iran if there is a credible threat of renewed sanctions emanating from the U.S., which will in turn hamper outside investment.
But at the moment, President Barack Obama is doing the opposite, encouraging a climate of economic security around Iran. Should the ghastly vision of a Donald Trump presidency come to fruition, the essence of this policy will likely continue, and will be further softened by Trump's eagerness to please Russian President Vladimir Putin. That's an outcome that Iran's ruling "moderates," in whom we have placed so much trust, will doubtless welcome.