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Rouhani's Cabinet Appointments Belie His Moderate Image

15/08/2013 16:14 BST | Updated 15/08/2013 16:14 BST

Shortly after taking his oath of office, President Hassan Rouhani announced the names of each of the individuals he intends to appoint to his cabinet. As with Rouhani's election and the content of his first speech as president, his cabinet picks have proven to be a source of excessive optimism in the world media. These reactions are only applauding imagined progress, while also ignoring obvious indicators that their optimism is misguided.

In a televised speech after being sworn in on August 4, Rouhani said "I say this frankly," "Iran has never been bent on war with the world."

If anyone sees such a statement as being indicative of moderation, he is either being extremely generous to Rouhani or extremely pessimistic about the breadth of the political spectrum in Iran. Not wanting to start a war with everyone is by no means an expression of moderate foreign policy. And the fact that Rouhani or any other president would have to express this view just goes to show how low Ahmadinejad set the bar for rational politics.

Such a situation is actually quite convenient for the conservative establishment. Now Rouhani can talk out of both sides of his mouth in nuclear negotiations and still be seen as a moderate in the eyes of the world. And indeed, that is just what he has done.

Despite Rouhani's friendly statements to the West, his statements about them have painted a different picture. His first bilateral meeting as president was with the head of North Korea's People's Assembly, to whom he expressed the view that the West was seeking an excuse for confrontation with countries it doesn't like over the nuclear issue.

Meanwhile, in a televised press conference, Rouhani reasserted Iran's unassailable right to enrichment, all but parroting the rhetoric of his predecessor. The essential difference is that Rouhani is much better at playing both sides of the issue. In fact, he counted this as one of his great accomplishments as Iran's lead nuclear negotiator. In 2003, he boasted that the goal of Iranian diplomacy would be "to proceed in both directions simultaneously," boosting the nation's nuclear program while also instilling false confidence in the West.

The Syrian rebellion is just as hot an international issue now as the Iranian nuclear program was a decade ago. He has expressed steadfast support for Bashar al-Assad, and has told the Syrian president and his representatives that the alliance between the two nations is permanent and unshakeable.

This contrast between the appearance and reality of Rouhani's policies is not at all limited to foreign relations. They are prominently on display in his cabinet appointments.

In what can only be described as an insult to the post, the Justice Ministry is set to be occupied by Mostafa Pourmohammadi. Far more than being a staunch conservative and steadfast supporter of the Ayatollah's absolute authority, Pourmohammadi was a perpetrator of crimes against humanity during the reign of Ayatollah Khomenei.

Pourmohammadi had an active hand in the chronically underreported 1988 Iran Massacre. After submitting to a cease-fire in the Iran-Iraq war, Khomenei signed a fatwa on July 16th, 1988 ordering the swift execution of all political prisoners and members of the Iranian resistance. The accused, including teenagers, pregnant women, and persons who had already completed their former sentences were taken before kangaroo courts and interrogated.

If any sign of opposition to the Khomenei regime was found, as it almost always was, the defendants were hanged. At the height of the massacre, executions were carried out on groups of six of seven prisoners every half hour. The total death toll is estimated at as much as 30,000, overwhelming majority of them activists of the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), the principal Iranian opposition movement.

The fates of each of these individuals were in a small number of hands. Khomenei appointed three-man Death Commissions to carry out his fatwa and commit the travesties of justice that masqueraded as trials for these thousands of victims. Among those personally responsible for the massacre, Mostafa Pourmohammadi was then Deputy Minister of Intelligence and served as one of the three members of the Death Commission in Tehran. Those who are aware of the massacre know Pourmohammadi to be guilty of crimes against humanity, not just for his role in 1988 but also for masterminding political assassinations in the years that followed.

This sort of criminally unquestioning fealty to the supreme leader is evidently something that the so-called moderate Rouhani is all too happy to invite into his cabinet. Why? Well, one reason might be that during the 1988 Iran Massacre, Rouhani was Deputy Commander of the Armed Forces and was almost certainly aware of what was going on. He too has blood on his hands. And a person who carries such a stain is unlikely to live up to his image as a moderate.

That image is only an illusion, a pragmatic way of achieving the goal of keeping things just the way they are.