Whatever comes out of the UN General Assembly session this week, Hasan Rouhani is the star of the show. Nothing new or surprising there; so was his predecessor, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who thought he saw a blue halo over his head while he spoke. Rouhani is presenting himself as the anti-Ahmadinejad, reasonable where Ahmadinejad was fanatical, releasing some political prisoners and promising towrite a new code of civil liberties (although executions in Iran have increased by a third since his electoral victory, and there is no noticeable drop in arrests of dissidents), and even (maybe) wishing the Jews of the world a happy new year. He's even taking the token Jewish member of parliament to New York.
That's the big act in the center ring at this year's circus. While he entertains us, Rouhani is engaged in much more serious enterprises in the other two rings: at home in Iran, and in the world at large. He's playing for personal power, the survival of the Iranian regime, and--paradoxically--a global victory for the Islamic Republic and its several allies from Pyongyang to Caracas, via Moscow.
At home, he's extremely ambitious. Not for nothing do both allies and enemies call him "Sheikh Fox." He no doubt believes that the supreme leader, whose health is poor, may well die in the next four years, and Rouhani aspires to the top job. His cabinet is a classic of tightrope walking, including hard liners along with "moderates," military, intelligence and political figures. He will need their support to become supreme leader.
Meanwhile, he's got a basket case of an economy. Inflation is reportedly around 70 %, which is the same percentage of Iranian municipalities in bankruptcy (there are demonstrations in cities like Karaj, protesting bank closures, and strikes and protests across the country by workers who have not been paid for months). According to my longstanding sources in Tehran, the country's strategic reserves are now down to about seventy days' worth at current spending levels.
Some of this pain is due to Western sanctions, the rest is the result of bad management, a culture based on deception rather than trust, corruption, and an all-out fight for power that has split the country's most powerful institution, the Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), into as many as five different factions, each following a separate group of leaders. You can see evidence of these fractures in recent speeches by Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in which they called upon the Guards to stay out of political activity, but insisted that the RG become ever more engaged in economic enterprises. It makes sense; only the IRGC has the financial resources and the manpower (about 42,000 cadre) to undertake significant projects. The money comes from narcotics trafficking (opium from Afghanistan, for example, along with cooperation with the Latin American drug cartels), sanctions-busting (including money laundering), and legal manufacturing and import-export businesses.
The population is predictably restive, and Rouhani, as the rest of the ruling elite, is looking for the right combination of charm and oppression to avoid a repetition of the country's periodic political spasms. On the one hand, he releases political prisoners, appoints token women to highly visible positions, and promises greater political freedoms. On the other hand, executions are up, movie directors and producers such as ismail rassuloff have been imprisoned, and to date, so far as we know, only one leading political prisoner has been released (the regime has not provided a list, only a number).
Rouhani has plenty to worry about. But he also has opportunities. Above all, America seems to the regime to be in full retreat. If the United States will not act in the face of more than a thousand Syrians killed with poison gas, when, if ever, will they? That means Tehran can step up its lethal activities in places like Iraq (where, in September, more people were killed than in Syria) and Afghanistan. Rouhani and his henchmen want the Americans out of Afghanistan as fast as possible, and this is likely to be on the agenda for Iran-US talks this week.
The strategic alliance with Russia, most obviously on display in the Syrian events of recent weeks, also gives hope to Rouhani, who recently met with Vladimir Putin. Presumably the Iranian tactics in New York will have been carefully coordinated with the Russians, which makes it harder for the United States to exert much diplomatic leverage. Indeed, the tide of power in the region is running in favor of Moscow and Tehran, as indicated by the recent Saudi and Egyptian approaches to Putin. The royal family and the generals in Cairo are clearly concerned about American resolve, and are doing the obvious: taking out insurance with threatening forces.
Rouhani's ambitions, like those of his predecessor, extend well beyond the Middle East, notably to Africa. Iranian support for radical Muslim terrorists in countries from Kenya to Nigeria has been publicly documented for years, as was Hezbollah's assistance to the bombers of US embassies in East Africa during the Clinton years. Judging by the mounting tempo of violence, Iran is doing well, and the United States can expect to find such countries less cooperative in the future. Why should they work with us if we are unwilling to fight alongside them?
All Rouhani's approaches to us will be wrapped in familiar rhetoric: give me what I want or you'll have to deal with the hard-liners. This will hardly surprise President Obama, who has said the same thing to the Russians and Iranians (I don't really want to be so tough on sanctions, he says, but what can I do? Those nasty Republicans made me do it...). The charm campaign anchors this tactic. We'll soon see if it works.