Rouhani at the UN 370.
(photo credit: REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz)
‘Trust, but verify,” or its Russian equivalent, “doveryai, no proveryai,” was a
saying US president Ronald Reagan favored during arms control negotiations with
the USSR’s Mikhail Gorbachev.
Eventually, negotiations bore fruit and
both superpowers destroyed thousands of nuclear and conventional ground-launched
ballistic and cruise missiles of intermediate ranges.
The US and other
nations should adopt the Persian version of this respectful but wary stance as
Iran shows signs of willingness to enter into negotiations over its nuclear
On one hand, the Obama administration, the EU and other
nations must accept at face value Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s apparent
overtures. Rebuffing what might be a sincere attempt at reconciliation might
mean missing an opportunity to halt the Islamic Republic’s march toward nuclear
weapon capability via peaceful diplomacy.
At the same time, the White
House must be wary of being duped into loosening the economic sanctions that are
destabilizing the Iranian economy and generating political unrest, without first
receiving verifiable evidence that the Iranians are closing down their nuclear
Unfortunately, there seem to be quite a few reasons to be
wary of Rouhani’s intentions and very few to believe that the mullahs are truly
ready to forgo their aspirations for a nuclear bomb.
First of all, Iran’s
nuclear weapons program is central to the regime’s deep convictions regarding
its vulnerable position as a lone Shi’ite state in the Sunni-dominated Middle
East. During the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, when the Islamic Republic was losing
tens of thousands of young men every month against the US-backed Iraqis, Iran’s
leaders saw nuclear weapons as the ultimate trump card. The same argument rings
true today as the Iran-backed Alawite President Basher Assad and other non-Sunni
minorities in Syria are fighting for their lives against a coalition financed by
Westernaligned Gulf states.
Second, Rouhani’s triumph in the recent
presidential election should not be misconstrued as ushering in an era of
moderation and rationality in Iranian politics. It should, instead, be seen as a
change of tactics. Rouhani may be attempting a divide and conquer strategy in
which the Europeans, who are likely to be more susceptible to Rouhani’s charm
offensive, are pitted against the Americans. And Israel, under Prime Minister
Binyamin Netanyahu’s lead, might clash with the White House on the
At the very least, Rouhani might be acting on the reasonable
belief that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s crude confrontational approach only hurt
Iran’s nuclear program and that subterfuge and a false aura of moderation will
more effectively further Iran’s goals.
Third, Iran has reason to believe
that the US and other Western powers are not serious about backing up sanctions
with military action. This is not 2003, the year that Iran actually did freeze
its nuclear weapons program out of fear that US president George W. Bush, who
was massing men and weapons for an invasion of Iraq, would come after the
Islamic Republic as well. As evidenced from the difficulties US President Barack
Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron encountered in mustering support
for military intervention in Syria, the West is war-weary.
circumstances, before agreeing to lessen economic sanctions, the US and other
nations must insist on verifiable, concrete steps that do not just delay Iran’s
breakout date by a few months or a year but that effectively shut down the
nuclear weapon program.
“Trust, but verify” helped end the Cold War
between the US and the USSR. We should not rule out the outside chance that the
same combination of openness to diplomacy and dialogue and strict adherence to
due diligence will pay off in negotiations with Tehran. But while Gorbachev was
presiding over a USSR on the verge of collapse, the mullahs running the Islamic
Republic, though smarting from economic sanctions, have too many reasons to
press ahead with their drive for nuclear weapons capability.