Rouhani’s facade

The Iranians rightly believe that showing a face of moderation will buy them time while they continue to move closer to nuclear weapons capability.

Hassan Rouhani Iran flag in background 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi)
Hassan Rouhani Iran flag in background 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi)
In the weeks between his June 14 election victory and his inauguration this past weekend as president of Iran, there has been an effort in the West to see Hassan Rouhani as a promising moderate.
Just a week before his inauguration, The New York Times published a front-page profile entitled “President-elect stirs optimism in the West” that opened with an account of how 11 years ago as a nuclear negotiator, Rouhani “took out his cellphone” and convinced Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to suspend the country’s march toward nuclear weapons capability. The result was an October 2003 agreement that held until 2005.
A former director-general of the French Foreign Ministry cited the agreement as proof that Rouhani was “the only one able to sell something deeply unpopular to the other leaders,” while Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al- Maliki told the United States last month that Rouhani was ready to start direct talks.
The Americans seem to have taken Maliki’s assessment seriously: “The inauguration of President Rouhani presents an opportunity for Iran to act quickly to resolve the international community’s deep concerns over Iran’s nuclear program,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said in a statement.
The White House has, so far, declined to publicly back tough new sanctions on Iran approved by the US House of Representatives, arguing for a pause to see if Rouhani will be interested in a nuclear deal.
The West has a tendency to seek compromise, and to believe that with a little goodwill, long-standing rivalries and bitter disagreements can be smoothed out through dialogue and diplomacy. This is a perfectly reasonable position, which is based on the assumption that people are really not that different and that Iran’s leaders largely view the conflict with the West in the same way as Westerners view tensions with Iran.
All this reflects a very Western hope that it is still possible to defuse tensions with Iran over the regime’s nuclear program and, in so doing, to revive support for diplomatic solutions. Unfortunately, there is no real evidence that Rouhani’s election victory justifies the West’s optimism regarding a peaceful resolution to Iran’s nuclear ambitions and aggression toward Israel.
On the Friday before his inauguration, Rouhani was quoted by the Iranian student news agency ISNA as saying, “The Zionist regime is a wound that has sat on the body of the Muslim world for years and needs to be removed.”
Even if Iranian officials are to be believed that Rouhani’s words were “distorted,” the official version was not fundamentally different: “In our region there’s been a wound for years on the body of the Muslim world under the shadow of the occupation of the holy land of Palestine and the beloved al-Quds.”
The mullahs who run Iran and a large percentage of the masses that support them truly do see the West’s secular culture as an imminent danger to their fundamentalist version of Shi’ite Islam. And they are right. Western ideals that value human dignity for both men and women, protect against religious persecution and uphold freedom of expression are an obstacle to the implementation of the mullahs’ reactionary dream of creating caliphates throughout the Middle East and beyond.
No surprise that in his books on foreign policy, Rouhani belittles the Christians in the West for caving in to secularism without a fight; sees the Islamic Republic and the US as countries locked in a permanent conflict; and views Israel as “the axis of all anti-Iranian activities,” according to the above mentioned Times profile.
Rouhani’s election should, instead, be seen as a tactical ploy that does not reflect a deeper process of real moderation.
Replacing the flamboyantly anti-West Ahmadinejad with a man with a past that includes the successful, if short-lived, clinching of a freeze on the Iranian nuclear program is smart from a foreign policy perspective. It plays on the West’s natural tendency (weakness?) to prefer compromise over conflict and to believe that at heart all humans want, like Westerners, to live in peace.
The Iranians rightly believe that showing a face of moderation will buy them time while they continue to move closer to nuclear weapons capability. But the Iranians must also be made to understand that as they move closer to nuclear breakout, Israel moves closer to the point where it sees military intervention as the only option that remains “on the table.”