Who Cares Who’s President of Iran?

Tehran’s rhetoric may change, but the quest for regional power never goes away.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of Iran’s June 12 election and its aftermath.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

It was almost midnight on Sept. 17, 1992, when two gunmen barged into Mykonos, a Greek restaurant in Berlin, and opened fire. Iranian-Kurdish opposition leaders Sadegh Sharafkandi, Fattah Abdoli, Homayoun Ardalan, and their translator Nouri Dehkordi were killed in the attack. Almost five years later, a German court convicted four men of the murders and concluded that the assassinations were ordered at the “highest state levels” in Tehran.

This was one of the most famous incidents in which Iranian involvement in international terrorism was exposed. In The Secret War With Iran, investigative journalist Ronen Bergman chronicled many such episodes. He quoted reliable sources claiming that hundreds of assassinations were conducted by Iran’s emissaries in the course of less than a decade—”most of them” during the years when former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was in power. Last week, Rafsanjani joined the chorus of relatively “moderate” Iranian leaders working to oust Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when he sent what one commentator described as an “unprecedented letter” to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. This letter accuses Ahmadinejad of having “lied and violated laws against religion, morality and fairness, and [having] targeted the achievements of our Islamic system.”

As the world eagerly awaits the outcome of Iran’s election, in which “extremist” Ahmadinejad—the populist, Holocaust-denying America-basher—faces more “moderate” challengers, it is easy to forget that it was Iran’s rhetoric, rather than its strategy or behavior, that changed for the worse under the current president. “Whether with Ahmadinejad or [moderate former President Mohammad] Khatami in power, it’s clear the Iranian president has limited influence, either for better or for worse. So even were Ahmadinejad to lose, there will not suddenly be flowers blooming” in Washington’s efforts to engage Iran, a White House official admitted last week.

It is also easy to forget that what makes Iran dangerous is not merely its pursuit of nuclear weapons but, rather, its campaign for regional hegemony, which is emboldened by nuclear development. In his Cairo speech, President Barack Obama reaffirmed “America’s commitment to seek a world in which no nations hold nuclear weapons.” But until that goal is reached, there are big differences among the various nations armed with nukes. What makes Iran different is the goal that country is pursuing, not the means it is using. This is why Iran—and not France or India—turned out to be what experts call “one of the most critical national security challenges facing the United States.”

Obama also said that he understands “those who protest that some countries have weapons that others do not”—a statement that made some Israeli officials nervous, since they interpreted it as a hint to the Iranians: If you get rid of your nuclear program, we will see to it that Israel’s also disappears. But there’s also a difference between Iran and Israel—one that most countries in the world, including Israel’s Arab neighbors, recognize. As Tariq Khaitous put it, “Iran’s strategy appears to be linked to the regime’s intent to pursue the regional hegemony that it proclaimed” after the revolution. Israel, hardly the dream neighbor of these Arab regimes, isn’t seen as having such an agenda.

So when Obama said in Cairo that the “nuclear weapons … issue has been a source of tension between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran,” he wasn’t exactly right. The battle over Iran’s nuclear program is the urgent manifestation of a more important issue. As the president said a couple of sentences later, “[t]he question now is not what Iran is against but, rather, what future it wants to build.”

It is not just the question of whether Iran’s leaders have their “own strategic logic” and want to ensure “the survival of the Islamic Republic as it exists now,” as professor Mohsen Milani argues in Foreign Affairs. Or maybe it is an “unpredictable” country whose “politico-military logic hardly compares to our NATO allies,” as former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton claims in the Wall Street Journal. Even if you believe that Iran is logical, you still have to ponder where the logic leads and what purpose it serves. Is it “survival” that concerns Tehran or “regional hegemony”?

When Iran’s elections are over—and the celebration (if Ahmadinejad loses) or despair (if he wins) subsides—it will be time for Washington to sit down and talk to the regime as Obama pledged on the campaign trail. A lot of distracting noise will accompany American-Iranian “engagement”—truisms about the evils of nuclear proliferation will mix with testimonies about the brutal nature of Iran’s regime, about Iranians’ desire for more freedom and democracy, about the disgusting and disquieting rhetoric of Iran’s leaders.

But in the end, these two tensions—”logic” vs. “unpredictability” and “survival” vs. “hegemony”—will determine what course the United States, the international community, and neighbors in the Middle East, Israel included, will pursue. That’s too much uncertainty for a country so close to having a nuclear umbrella.