When world leaders gathered at the G7 conference in August, the Iranian president Hassan Rouhani mentioned his willingness to meet with his American counterpart. Shortly thereafter, Amir Taheri received a late-night phone call from a contact claiming that, if President Trump would take up the offer, he could hand a major victory to the “moderates”—led by Rouhani—over the “hardliners”—ostensibly led by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Taheri explains how this unsubstantiated interpretation of Tehran’s politics is as old as the Islamic Republic itself:
Weeks after the mullahs seized power in 1979, the Carter administration identified Mehdi Bazargan, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s first prime minister, as “the man with whom we can work.” After he was kicked out, attention was turned to more ephemeral figures. . . . With Khomeini supposedly too old to last long, these were the men who would shape Iran’s Thermidor, emerging from the reign of terror. Fariba Adelkhah, then a young researcher in Paris, and later an ardent apologist for the Islamic Republic, even wrote a book bearing the title Iranian Thermidor. She is now a hostage in Tehran held by the very men she had so passionately defended in the French media.
Both President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair told me at different times that they had identified “men with whom we can work” in Tehran and that the key to success was getting rid of Khamenei and his “hardliners.”
Western analysts and their imitators inside Iran missed two crucial points. The first was that, like most revolutionary regimes, the Khomeinists had no mechanism for reform in the direction desired by the Iranian middle classes and the Western powers. Thus, even if its leaders tried to introduce reforms, they would be doomed to failure. . . . The second point Western powers ignore is that Iranians today are divided into two broad camps. . . . One camp consists of those, perhaps even a majority today, who are disillusioned with the Islamic Revolution and seek ways of [bringing it to an end] as soon as possible. . . . In the second camp, we find all those who, for different reasons, are still committed to the Khomeinist revolution.
Thus if Trump, or anyone else, wishes to make a deal with the present regime in Tehran, the man they should talk to is Khamenei, not Rouhani, an actor playing the president. [T]hat fact was demonstrated [when] Khamenei ordered Rouhani to eat humble pie and publicly recant his [offer of] a summit with Trump.