Former government officials and experts say that newly elected Iranian President Hassan Rowhani is not the moderate he appears to be.
Cleric Rowhani is already being hailed in the media as a progressive reformer. He surprised Iran observers across the globe on Saturday by securing a definitive win in the country’s closely watched election.
He was quickly dubbed a moderate maverick who could bring Tehran closer to reticent Western leaders who remain concerned about Iran’s clandestine nuclear weapons program.
Yet Rowhani, who served for years as Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, is expected to present a friendly face to the world as Tehran’s military leaders quietly fulfill their nuclear ambitions, experts said.
"President-elect Rowhani campaigned proudly on his record as Iran's nuclear negotiator during the time that Iran secretly advanced its nuclear weapons capability and deceived the international community to avoid harsh sanctions," Mark Wallace, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said in a statement.
Wallace and others said they expect more nuclear subterfuge going forward.
Rowhani "has promised more of the same, but this time the international community is on notice of his past deceit," said Wallace, currently CEO of United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI.)
Rowhani sailed to victory on Saturday despite predictions that a cadre of so-called "hardline" candidates had gained the upper hand.
Reuters, for instance, billed the win as a "resounding defeat of conservative hardliners" and a "victory of moderation over extremism."
Other Western media organizations, such as USA Today, also adopted this view by referring to Rowhani as a "reformist."
Yet Rowhani’s past statements and actions show he is a smooth-talking ally of Iran’s most hardline elements, experts said.
"Hassan Rowhani is part of the establishment of the Islamic Republic—he was there when this Islamist dictatorship was built and he's still here to secure it. How exactly is this moderate?" asked Saba Farzan, an Iranian-born journalist.
Rowhani has served as a government insider since the early 1980s, when he was appointed a member of the Supreme Defense Council and became a representative of the Supreme Leader to Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, a position in which he still serves.
Though Rowhani ultimately won the support of Tehran’s more moderate factions, he is anything but a progressive, Farzan said.
"During the 1999 uprising he was complicit of a severe crackdown on students that led to a dormitory at Teheran University being burned down," said Farzan, a senior fellow and head of Iran research at the Mideast Freedom Forum Berlin. "He's a political figure that had access into the inner circle of Iran's radical foreign policy and in fact helped shape it deeply in the early 2000s."
Rowhani is closely tied to Iran’s Supreme Leader and the ruling class.
This paints "a picture of Rowhani that shows no sign of moderation or the political change delivered that the Iranian people aspire," Farzan said. "History is repeating itself as Rowhani wants to follow the previous tenures of [Hashemi] Rafsandjani and [Mohammad] Khatami—fooling Europe, dismissing America and continuing the rule of an oppressive regime."
Rowhani earned the title of reformer after Iran’s election board purged hundreds of candidates and prevented them from running. Khamenei deemed Rowhani and several others as acceptable choices.
As the world shifts its attention to Rowhani and the election-season theater, Israel warned over the weekend that Iran is creeping dangerously close to a nuclear weapon.
"The international community must not give in to wishful thinking or temptation and loosen the pressure on Iran for it to stop its nuclear program," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet, according to a statement issued by his office on Sunday.
The International Atomic Energy Agency found in May that Iran has installed advanced centrifuges into its nuclear facility, allowing Tehran to quickly stockpile and enrich the key element in a nuclear bomb.
A heavy water nuclear reactor is also set to go online in the coming months, the IAEA stated. This provides Tehran a secondary path to nuclear capabilities.
Nuclear experts say Tehran is expanding its nuclear abilities while consciously avoiding crossing Western red lines that could lead to a preemptive attack.
"It can be concluded from Iran's lateral expansion of its nuclear program that it is adhering to the framework created for it by President Obama—a framework that legitimizes Iran's status as a nuclear threshold state while expressing his opposition to Iran's crossing of that threshold and manufacturing a nuclear bomb," the Middle East Media Research Institute stated in a recent report on Iran’s nuclear program.
MEMRI concluded that Iran "is turning these [nuclear] talks [with the West] into a tool that serves its own interests."
It is against this backdrop that Rowhani assumes office in August.
Rowhani called for "a policy of reconciliation and peace" while on the campaign trail, stoking optimism among those in the West who favor closer engagement with Tehran.
Veteran Israeli journalist Avi Issacharoff also noted in a Sunday dispatch that Rowhani's "surprise" victory pleased Iran's establishment.
"The incoming president of Iran was never a reformist." Issacharoff wrote for the Tower, a publication supported by The Israel Project (TIP).
"It is doubtful that his achievement was even a victory for the moderate camp in Iran, which on the face of it wants to replace the regime and to stop the nuclear weapons race," he wrote.
"He never called himself a reformist," Dr. Soli Shahvar, chief official at the Ezri Center for Iran and Gulf Studies at Haifa University, told Issacharoff.
"But he uses rhetoric that is less blustery than that of Ahmedinejad, and speaks more moderately, including on the subject of nuclear negotiations," Shavar was quoted as saying. "I interpret his election in one way only: The regime wanted him to win."
Former Pentagon adviser Michael Rubin said this rhetoric is an attempt to distract the West with more fruitless negotiations.
"In interviews dating back five years, Rowhani has bragged about how he used engagement to confuse the enemy and advance Iran's nuclear program," said Rubin, a former Pentagon advisor on Iran and Iraq.
"If insanity, as Albert Einstein said, is taking the same action repeatedly but expecting different results, then Rowhani figures he's just the man to have [President] Obama and [Secretary of State John] Kerry committed on Iran's way to a nuclear weapon," Rubin said. "Alas, too many Western diplomats are already trying on their straight jackets."