I am old enough to remember how some hardline conservatives criticized Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher for concluding that Mikhail Gorbachev was someone they could do business with. For their temerity, Reagan and Thatcher were denounced in some quarters as dupes and sell-outs–but they were absolutely right: Gorbachev really was a new kind of Russian leader. Arms-control deals that had been concluded with his hardline predecessors were worthless, but Gorbachev really was interested in reducing tensions and cutting the USSR’s defense budget. Even so, Reagan didn’t give away the house–remember that he refused to trade away SDI (“Star Wars”) at the 1988 Reykjavik summit even in return for major cuts in nuclear forces.
All this history needs to be kept in mind as Washington is gripped by Rouhani fever, with expectations spiking that the presidents of Iran and the United States will meet for the first time since the Iranian Revolution and that a deal might be concluded to stop the Iranian nuclear program. Reagan’s experience should teach us that we can’t dismiss the possibility that Rouhani is serious about a deal–but that we shouldn’t get so giddy about achieving that goal that we lose sight of the bottom line: One way or another, we need to stop Iran from going nuclear.
The tentative outreach from Hassan Rouhani since his election is welcome; certainly it’s preferable to the poisonous hostility of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But let’s keep in mind that Rouhani hasn’t made any real concessions yet–he has certainly not done anything as dramatic as Anwar Sadat did when he flew to Israel to prove his commitment to peace. Wishing Jews a happy Rosh Hashanah isn’t quite on the same level.
Moreover, even if we were to assume that Rouhani really is a Gorbachev-like figure who is committed to a deal, we need to keep in mind that he doesn’t wield Gorbachev-like power. Real authority in the Iranian system is vested in the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, whom no one would mistake for a born-again moderate.
Indeed, the New York Times today has a bracing exposition of the supreme leader’s views courtesy of regime insider Hamid-Reza Taraghi:
“We have no intention to change,” said Mr. Taraghi. “Our ideology will remain the same. Iran will remain the same even after possible talks.”
By this he meant that Iran would never recognize the state of Israel or stop supporting Palestinian groups fighting what it calls “the Zionist entity.” In nuclear matters, it means accepting nothing less than full recognition of what Iran says is its “right” to a nuclear program under its own control. Support for the Syrian government will continue, as will Iran’s overall confrontational stance toward the West.
Given such thinking in Tehran, the odds are that those who expect rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran are likely to be disappointed. Khamenei seems to be calculating that the U.S. is so weak now (see recent events in Syria) that it will drop sanctions and accept Iran’s ambitions to dominate the Middle East in return for a cosmetic slowdown in its nuclear development. It is critical that President Obama stick to a high standard for any possible deal, as outlined by the Foreign Policy Institute’s Robert Zarate.
What does this mean in practice? “1. Any Iranian nuclear deal should require ‘zero enrichment’ to close off Iran’s path to a nuclear bomb using centrifuges to produce weapons-usable high enriched uranium…. 2. Any Iranian nuclear deal should require ‘zero reprocessing’ to close off Iran’s path to a nuclear bomb using plutonium that could be separated from a reactor’s spent nuclear fuel…. 3. Any Iranian nuclear deal should require Iran to fully comply with its international obligations through ‘complete and total transparency’—that is, by allowing nuclear inspection activities far beyond those required by its NPT-required IAEA safeguards agreement.”
If Rouhani can agree to such terms and get the rest of the Iranian establishment, led by Ayatollah Khamenei, to go along, then he is what he seems to be–a true moderate who is interested in de-escalating the confrontation between Iran and the West. If not, Rouhani is up to his old tricks–using negotiations to buy time for the nuclear program to develop, as he has previously admitted to doing.