Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has been strutting through the halls of the World Economic Forum in Davos like an Oscar nominee at the Academy Awards. And why wouldn’t he be working the red carpet with a wide grin on his face, while he’s being treated like a movie star? After all, being an actor comes easily to the head of the Islamic Republic. Since taking the reins in Tehran in August, he has been typecast as a “moderate.” It is a role he has assumed with ease. Not only does it require few rehearsals, since his script is both short and predictable, but the Western audiences to whom he is playing get caught up in his performance, even when he forgets his lines and lets it slip that he only differs from his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in style but not content.
It is thus that the long-time ayatollah Khomeini loyalist – and current Ayatollah Khamenei protégé – has been able to stave off stepped-up sanctions from the United States and Europe by pretending to engage in diplomatic discussions over Iran’s nuclear program.
No matter how many centrifuges continue to spin or how much uranium continues to be enriched, all Rouhani has to do to buy more time to perfect long-range ballistic missiles for future nuclear warheads is to assure his P5+1 negotiating partners – the US, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France and Germany – that his intentions are “peaceful.” Then, when presented with evidence to the contrary, he goes on the offensive, accusing them of imposing “illegal sanctions.”
It is a carrot-and-stick approach that has served him in good stead. In fact, it led to the November 24 signing in Geneva of the Joint Plan of Action, an interim agreement between Iran and the P5+1 countries according to which Iran would implement a temporary freeze on some of its nuclear activity, in exchange for a decrease in the sanctions that have been crippling its economy.
This agreement, which US President Barack Obama proudly points to as vindication of his policy to engage with Iran, rather than increase sanctions, went into effect Monday.
By Wednesday, however, Iran was already putting on an encore of the double- dealing that characterizes its current government. In an interview with CNN in Davos, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that the Obama administration has misrepresented the terms of the agreement. “The White House version both underplays the concessions and overplays Iranian commitments,” he said. “We [Iran] did not agree to dismantle anything.”
On Thursday, it was Rouhani’s turn to talk to CNN. This he did with a vengeance – toward the US Congress, that is, which is trying to guarantee that Iran abides by its part of the interim agreement through fear of additional sanctions. “We are not afraid of threats,” Rouhani said. “And the language of threats is ineffective when it comes to Iran. The language they need to choose should be a legal one, a respectful tone of voice when addressing the Iranian people.”
This angry indignation was absent from the speech he delivered from the podium of the forum. Announcing that he was embarking on a new program of “constructive engagement with the world,” Rouhani waxed poetic about the need for economic development in the Middle East, which he described as “engulfed in flames.”
He ought to know. Iran is a key arsonist, after all. And Rouhani was at the forum to collect some insurance money to fill his empty till.
When asked whether he meant to engage with the entire world, he chuckled. “Only with countries Iran recognizes,” he said, understanding that both the question and his answer were referring to Israel. He also made another veiled reference to the Jewish state when he said that the real obstacle to a full nuclear deal was “a lack of serious will by other parties or pressure influenced by others.”
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu took to the podium a few hours later, and warned against believing Rouhani’s latest charm offensive. He also stressed that many in the Arab world were “not reassured” by Rouhani’s stage act. “Believe me, they get [the fact that Iran]... remains aggressive, supports terror, participates in the slaughter in Syria, and is pursuing the development of ballistic missiles and plutonium for nuclear weapons. They get it right, and we get it right. We all wish there was a real change in Iran... [but] we have to look at their deeds, not the soft words they utter.”
It is both comic and tragic that Netanyahu has to invoke Arab-Muslim displeasure with Rouhani in order to persuade the West not to trust him. Nor will it do any good. The critics will continue to pan Netanyahu while giving Rouhani standing ovations.
Such is the international theater of the absurd.
The writer is the author of To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’