Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party until 2008. Follow Garvan on Twitter.
Nobody can best the French revolution at naming months. Floreal for late spring, smelling of rose petals and buzzing with honey bees; Germinal when disease spreads quickest; Thermidor in high summer when all France cowered before a plague of Jacobin lobsters; and finally, when Haitian slaves gathered in the tobacco harvest, Humidor.
But when it comes to political institutions, it is revolutionary Iran that deserves the gold medal. Most famous perhaps is the Guardian Council, a group of balding men in check shirts, thick-rimmed glasses and gently left-wing politics who convene every Saturday afternoon for locally-sourced organic steak washed down with the latest craft beer to discuss Arsenal’s flagging fortunes. It should not be confused with the Experts’ Assembly, both a tribute to an obscure 1990s punk band and a new reality TV show, where families compete to assemble IKEA furniture. Spare a thought, too, for the Expediency Council, composed of an even number of Peter Mandelson holograms, but which always manages to avoid deadlock through the sheer impenetrability of its members’ plots and stratagems.
But as real power in France came to reside in the diminutive Corsican First Consul, in Iran it lies in the hands of the one man who could match the Supreme Allied Commandership given to Eisenhower. He is of course Ayatollah Khamenei and he glories in the designation of Supreme Leader.
During the years in which Iran’s presidency was held by that miniature Holocaust denier whose name rhymed with “I’m a dinner jacket,” apologists for Tehran would explain, (correctly enough) that when crowds shouted “Death to Israel” or “Death to America” this just reflected the colourful Persian manner of speech. The mobs really had in mind something that would better be rendered “Down with this sort of thing.” Or when Ahmadinejad threatened to “wipe Israel off the map,” they would insist (this time falsely) that it was a mistranslation. Called on this prestidigitation, they would retreat to the Clue Is In The Name defence, that the President was at best a figurehead, at worst someone in charge of the domestic economy, the proper enforcement of the Islamic dress code and the persecution of those homosexuals whose existence in Iran he denied on a visit to New York. However deplorable his internal repression, they explained, he was kept away from foreign policy and the nuclear programme, matters strictly within the purview of the far more powerful Supreme Leader.
Now, however, that a new president, Hassan Rouhani, has been chosen from a shortlist of candidates, drawn tightly to exclude not only anybody associated with Iran’s opposition Green Movement, but even the wily and manipulative Hashemi Rafsanjani (his daughter has been imprisoned by the regime) and whose power is independent of Khamenei’s, we are told that the Presidency is a position of awesome potency, and its occupant a figure of moderation. They point to his choice of Iran’s one Jewish member of parliament as his travelling companion to the UN, window-dressing convincing to the person who gave this week’s Labour Conference stage a deep blue backdrop.
Rouhani, they explain, ought to receive concessions on Iran’s nuclear programme and recognition by foreign leaders, so that he can take something back to Tehran, and show the regime’s leadership that moderation pays dividends. But Rouhani is not an independent politician, whom the West might find it useful to do business with. Nor, unlike former president Khatami, does he have a record of liberalisation to his credit. He simply speaks softly. The words he whispers are those any goon’s sophisticated front-man: “You’d rather deal with me than with the menacing meathead behind me, wouldn’t you?” His plan is to divide the international alliance that Ahmadinejad’s blood-curdling speeches have enabled the West to construct, peeling off its more reluctant allies, and leaving Obama’s unpardonably skittish Administration isolated.
A strong international regime of containment is the best chance of preventing Iran getting so close to a bomb that Israel feels it has no alternative but to risk attacking. Any weakening of the coalition, far from contributing to peace, in fact pushes war closer.
It has been widely reported that Rouhani will hang around the halls of the UN building, hoping to snatch a handshake with Obama. Barack should really make himself scarce. He can, however, deploy a possibly unwilling ally to shake the Iranian’s hand. For the United States has also produced a self-important political leader who has scraped through a demanding selection process dominated by religious extremists. I refer to none other than the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and walking advert for the American tanning-salon sector, John Boehner, the perfect counterpart for Hassan Rouhani.