Pete Souza / Courtesy Reuters U.S. President Barack Obama talks with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during a phone call in the Oval Office, September 2013.

A Deal With the Devil?

Why Washington Should Not Pin Its Hopes on Rouhani

The Iranian nuclear negotiations have proven divisive enough within the United States and among the United States and its allies. But the bigger story is the wedge they have exposed between factions in Iran.

The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama and some of its partners in the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) see Iranian President Hassan Rouhani as a critical partner, one with the potential to deliver a long-sought nuclear compromise and a broader rapprochement with the West. Skeptics in the United States and abroad, on the other hand, see Rouhani as little more than an Iranian hard-liner pretending to play nice.

Both views, however, miss the larger drama. There is indeed a fundamental divide within the Iranian regime—with Rouhani leading one side—but it has less to do with Iran’s nuclear program or regional strategy than with the more basic question of how best to preserve the regime itself.

A CRISIS OF LEGITIMACY

Thanks to the Arab uprisings and the thaw in U.S.-Iranian relations, the West has largely forgotten about Iran’s “Green Revolution” of June 2009, during which over 100,000 protesters flooded the streets of Tehran to protest what they saw as the fraudulent reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But the revolution has not been forgotten in Iran itself. Indeed, the leaders of the Green Movement, Mir Hussein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi, remain in confinement, and hard-liners to this day warn of these so-called seditionists who must be barred from power.

The events of June 2009 represented a crisis of legitimacy for the Iranian regime. The uprising and its aftermath exposed the widening gulf between Iran’s progress and the progress of other developing countries, between the regime’s actions and its stated principles, and, most important, between the aspirations of Iranians in 2009 and the aspirations of Iranians in 1979, whose revolution established an anti-Western authoritarian theocracy under the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

The crisis also sharpened a rift among Iranian

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