Not Our Man in Iran

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New York Times: If the polls and pundits can be believed, Ali Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani will move a step closer to regaining the presidency of Iran in tomorrow’s national elections.
And while the Iranian people will view the results with a mixture of resignation and boredom (turnout is unlikely to top 30 percent), Mr. Rafsanjani’s rehabilitation will be welcomed in Paris, London, Berlin and, most unfortunately, Washington. New York Times

By DANIELLE PLETKA
Op-Ed Contributor

Washington

IF the polls and pundits can be believed, Ali Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani will move a step closer to regaining the presidency of Iran in tomorrow’s national elections. And while the Iranian people will view the results with a mixture of resignation and boredom (turnout is unlikely to top 30 percent), Mr. Rafsanjani’s rehabilitation will be welcomed in Paris, London, Berlin and, most unfortunately, Washington.

The Western powers are betting that Mr. Rafsanjani, a billionaire businessman who was Iran’s president from 1989 to 1997, will either win an outright majority tomorrow or be elected in a two-candidate runoff on July 1. They feel that he – _unlike the current, “reformist” president, Mohammed Khatami – may cut a deal to give up Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Such hopes are profoundly misplaced.

Ever since the trans-Atlantic meltdown over the American-led invasion of Iraq, European leaders have been eager to prove the value of so-called soft power: that supposedly magic mixture of diplomacy, economic incentives and cultural coercion. So for more than a year Britain, France and Germany have been negotiating with Iran, trying to get the mullahs to stop producing enriched uranium and dismantle their illicit nuclear program.

Unsurprisingly, the Iranians have toyed with the Europeans, making agreements, breaking them, making more and then threatening to break those, too. By this spring it was all too clear that the regime didn’t take the process seriously. Then Mr. Rafsanjani came back on the scene, offering the Europeans a lifeline.

“I believe the main solution is to gain the trust of Europe and America and to remove their concerns over the peaceful nature of our nuclear industry,” he told reporters upon announcing his candidacy in May. European diplomats quickly let it be known that negotiations were on hold until their man was back in office.

Washington sipped the Rafsanjani Kool-Aid more warily, but so far it has offered no better way forward. President Bush was right to induct Iran into the axis of evil in 2002, but he has yet to come up with a coherent policy. There has been no real outreach to the opposition; no plan to contain Iran’s regional designs. The Europeans’ game is the only game; and if they like Mr. Rafsanjani, so do we, apparently.

The Iranian people, however, are less easily had. In his first tour as president, Mr. Rafsanjani cemented a reputation as a corrupt and power-hungry wheeler-dealer. He crushed personal freedoms and presided over a sharp economic downturn. He ushered in a particularly aggressive phase of Iranian sponsorship of terrorism – including alleged roles in the bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1994 that killed more than 80, and in the assassinations of several Iranian exiles, including former Prime Minister Shahpur Bakhtiar in 1991.

Few in Iran lamented the end of his tenure in 1997, and in 2000 a thinly disguised account of his regime’s brutality became a best seller. That year he was humiliated in parliamentary elections, finishing 30th in his district, and his political career seemed over.

His comeback is due not to popular demand, but to the machinations of the mullahs. Of the thousand-plus registered candidates for the presidential election, all but eight were disqualified by the unelected Guardian Council. A spokesman for the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, remarked that with a Rafsanjani victory, “We will finally be able to have for ourselves the atomic bomb to fairly stand up to Israeli weapons.” And we expect to catch a break from this man?

Let’s face it: scheming to make deals with the mullah of the moment is not policymaking. Yes, Iran is a thorny problem. But it is best tackled through a robust program to support the rights of the Iranian people, including imprisoned journalists and beleaguered women; of diplomatic isolation for Iran’s dictators; of zero tolerance for the sponsorship of terrorism (even if this means freezing bank accounts, closing off borders and denying visas); and of more aggressive efforts to cut off the shipments of missile and nuclear technology and hardware into Iran.

Such policies may rub our allies the wrong way, but they have more potential value than the empty promises and false charm of the man known in Iran as “the Shark.”

Danielle Pletka is the vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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