Death, where is thy sting? For Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, it certainly didn’t come from the mainstream media.
The 82-year-old former Iranian president died of a heart attack earlier this month. The New York Times called him an “influential voice against hard-liners” and “a main voice in Iran calling for outreach to the West.” The Los Angeles Times said he had been “one of the most powerful allies of moderates in Tehran.” National Public Radio praised him as “a leading voice for reform.” The news section of The Wall Street Journal agreed that he was a “leading voice among moderate politicians.”
On what basis? Ayatollah Rafsanjani was a revolutionary, one of the founders of a state in which all power is exercised by a religious elite whose reading of Shia Islam is unswervingly bellicose; a regime implacably hostile to America, Israel and the liberal world order; one that has murdered, tortured and persecuted thousands of political opponents as well as those deemed blasphemers, apostates and heretics.
There’s more. My colleague, Benham Ben Taleblu, a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), writes that when Rafsanjani was president in the 1990s, “Iran’s foreign assassination teams ran rampant in Europe, eliminating anti-regime artists, human rights activists, and political dissidents. Under his watch, Iran established itself in Latin America, working with Hezbollah to bomb the Israeli embassy in Argentina in 1992 and a Jewish cultural center in that country’s capital in 1994, which together killed over 100 people.”
In other words, Rafsanjani was a funder and commander of terrorism — or what President Obama has preferred to call “violent extremism.” Are we now to believe there are moderate violent extremists?
The bad habit of defining extremism down traces back to 1979 when Iran’s Islamic revolution spawned jihadism in its modern forms. Its leader was Ruhollah Khomeini, whose far-from-moderate views were not hidden. Not least, they were on view in a book he had written: “Islamic Government.” But most Western diplomats and journalists preferred to avert their eyes.
Andrew Young, President Jimmy Carter’s U.N. ambassador, asserted that Ayatollah Khomeini was “a saint.” William Sullivan, the U.S. ambassador in Tehran, compared him to Mahatma Gandhi. Time magazine predicted that Iran would soon become a “parliamentary democracy.”
In the pages of The New York Times, Princeton professor Richard Falk assured Americans that Khomeini’s “close advisers are uniformly composed of moderate, progressive individuals who share a notable record of concern with human rights resisting oppression and promoting social justice.”
Iranian liberals and leftists also succumbed to self-delusion. But, as Wall Street Journal editorial writer Sohrab Ahmari recalled last week, it was none other than Ayatollah Rafsanjani who disabused them of their fanciful notions.
“Until we had our people in place,” Rafsanjani told one such liberal in 1981, “we were ready to tolerate [other] gentlemen on the stage.” After that, Mr. Ahmari writes, “the regime would brook no faction but those that followed the ‘Line of the Imam’ — Khomeini. A decade of purges, prison rapes and executions followed.”
Mr. Ahmari notes that while Rafsanjani was president in 1996, “Iranian agents bombed Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, killing 19 U.S. service members. And in 2001, Rafsanjani threatened: ‘If one day the Islamic world is also equipped with weapons like those that Israel possesses now, then the imperialists’ strategy will reach a standstill because the use of even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything.’”
We may assume Rafsanjani had that in mind when he became the “driving force behind the development of the Islamic republic’s nuclear program,” in the words of Ray Takeyh, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations and Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former Iran specialist at the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, now a senior fellow at FDD.
They add that he “never seriously contemplated political reform.” On the contrary, during his presidency “corruption became endemic.” The son of a pistachio farmer, he grew fabulously wealthy. As for his opening to Europe, that was tactical. He viewed “European technology and investment as essential prerequisites for Iranian hegemony in the Middle East. To fulfill that dream, Rafsanjani didn’t have a problem with cutting deals with American oil companies.”
To be clear: I’m not saying there are no Iranian moderates. On the contrary, in 2009 hundreds of thousands took to the streets to protest the clerical dictatorship. President Obama, apparently convinced that “moderates” in the regime were eager for rapprochement with America — or at least with him — gave no support to what became known as the Green Movement.
Another moderate is Ahmad Montazeri who last month was sentenced by an Iranian revolutionary court to 21 years in prison. His crime: releasing tapes from 1988 of his father, the Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, also among the Islamic Republic’s founders, denouncing the repressive direction the regime had taken, and calling Ayatollah Khomeini “bloodthirsty, brutal and murderous.”
The day after Rafsanjani’s death, U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby called him “a prominent figure” and extended “condolences to his family and loved ones.” A reporter asked whether that was appropriate given the theocrat’s record. “We’re not going to debate the history,” Mr. Kirby replied.
I suspect that reveals one of the flaws in the Obama administration’s policymaking process. When it comes to Iran and the Shia edge of the bloody jihadi sword, the president and his advisers — along with too many elite journalists — have refused to question the comforting fable of a regime in which “moderates” battle “hard-liners.” An informed debate about the history of the past two generations might have produced wiser policies.
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.