Iran’s charm offensive is already paying diplomatic dividends, but its supreme leader is signaling that he is already starting to pull the plug on the supposed opening for nuclear diplomacy. Iran’s foreign minister told a pro-regime newspaper today that Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was none too pleased with Western favorite Hassan Rouhani for the new president’s phone call with President Obama as well as his meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry last month in New York. Khamenei, who is the real ruler of Iran, apparently thinks Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and Rouhani exceeded their authority in the chats even though neither conceded much to American leaders who appeared desperate to seize the chance to reopen talks with the Islamist regime.
The exact meaning of Khamenei’s signal to the so-called moderates may be debated. But it repeats a familiar pattern in which Iran tricks the West into wasting time on diplomacy only to make it clear later that no deal is in the offing. Yet despite this, Western nations still appear to be doubling down on their willingness to believe in Rouhani’s supposed promise of moderation. Britain appears to be renewing diplomatic ties with Iran two years after severing relations in the wake of an attack on their Tehran embassy. And the United Nations has astonishingly named the nuclear scofflaw as special rapporteur of the United Nations General Assembly’s Committee on Disarmament and International Security.
Added to the prospect of the Obama administration’s eager desire to give engagement with Iran another try leading to more months of negotiations, these developments show just how much Rouhani has already achieved with a charm offensive that Khamenei is unlikely to bear fruit with actual progress on the nuclear issue.
Khamenei’s signal that he isn’t going to let Rouhani go too far may seem to be counter-intuitive given all the talk of a new spirit in Iran has already accomplished. But it makes sense when you consider that Rouhani’s own positions on the key nuclear issue are little different from those of Khamenei despite the attempts of Westerners to convince themselves otherwise. As Jeffrey Goldberg wrote yesterday in Bloomberg, Rouhani “is proud of the work he did to advance his country’s nuclear program — and also of his efforts to stymie Western attempts to stop that work.”
Goldberg noted Rouhani’s past role in tricking the West on nuclear negotiations that he bragged about earlier this year. But the deceptive nature of Rouhani’s moderation that was on display at the U.N. still has not penetrated the consciousness of the Obama administration or its Western allies even though these facts are not exactly a secret. Yet few appear to be listening to such warnings or those of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who again said today that any deal with Iran must ensure the end of Iran’s uranium enrichment as well its plutonium program.
Western negotiators have been offering Iran deals which will enable them to keep their nuclear program for years, but Tehran has always preferred to preserve its ability to build a weapon rather than to accept and thus end economic sanctions. The Rouhani charm offensive sets up the West for a repeat of this farce even as Khamenei is making it clear that he will never give up the regime’s nuclear ambitions.
The bottom line is that while the West negotiates with itself in order to strengthen Iranian “moderates” against the supposed “hardliners,” the regime buys itself more time to get closer to its nuclear goal. Though Khamenei and Rouhani may appear to be at cross-purposes, they are working together to advance their common nuclear agenda. The only question is how long it will take President Obama to catch on.