Commentary Magazine


Topic: Hassan Rouhani

Iran Talks: Perception Versus Reality

Iran is well pleased by the outcome of yesterday’s revived P5+1 talks and why shouldn’t they be? The convening of a new round of negotiations after previous incarnations of this process were pronounced dead because of Iranian intransigence and obfuscation was a victory in and of itself for them. The renewed enthusiasm for talking to a country that has proved time and again that it only uses diplomacy as a method for deceit and delay when it comes to Western efforts to restrain their drive for nuclear weapons was due entirely to the perception that new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is a moderate. That Rouhani has been guilty of playing the same game when he was Iran’s nuclear negotiator is a fact that was ignored even as the U.S. and its European allies headed down the garden path with Tehran again. Just by showing up, the Iranians ensured that the meeting would conclude with announcements for another such rendezvous next month.

But just as important for the Iranians was the fact that theirs negotiating partners were so enthralled by the prospect of a new era of relations with Rouhani that they treated the Iranian proposal for ending the dispute as if it were actually something new and worth talking about. The Iranians appear to have impressed the representatives of the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany with a power point presentation that supposedly demonstrated how they could go on enriching uranium, hold onto their stockpile of nuclear fuel and yet somehow be trusted not to build a bomb. But once the Rouhani-inspired rose-colored glasses are off, it’s more than obvious to objective observers that the Iranians showed up in Geneva with nothing new to say. That raises the question as to whether the President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry understand this and even if they do, are they sufficiently committed to keeping their word on Iran that they will not be pressured into pretending that this is the prelude to a genuine breakthrough.

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Iran is well pleased by the outcome of yesterday’s revived P5+1 talks and why shouldn’t they be? The convening of a new round of negotiations after previous incarnations of this process were pronounced dead because of Iranian intransigence and obfuscation was a victory in and of itself for them. The renewed enthusiasm for talking to a country that has proved time and again that it only uses diplomacy as a method for deceit and delay when it comes to Western efforts to restrain their drive for nuclear weapons was due entirely to the perception that new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is a moderate. That Rouhani has been guilty of playing the same game when he was Iran’s nuclear negotiator is a fact that was ignored even as the U.S. and its European allies headed down the garden path with Tehran again. Just by showing up, the Iranians ensured that the meeting would conclude with announcements for another such rendezvous next month.

But just as important for the Iranians was the fact that theirs negotiating partners were so enthralled by the prospect of a new era of relations with Rouhani that they treated the Iranian proposal for ending the dispute as if it were actually something new and worth talking about. The Iranians appear to have impressed the representatives of the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany with a power point presentation that supposedly demonstrated how they could go on enriching uranium, hold onto their stockpile of nuclear fuel and yet somehow be trusted not to build a bomb. But once the Rouhani-inspired rose-colored glasses are off, it’s more than obvious to objective observers that the Iranians showed up in Geneva with nothing new to say. That raises the question as to whether the President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry understand this and even if they do, are they sufficiently committed to keeping their word on Iran that they will not be pressured into pretending that this is the prelude to a genuine breakthrough.

While the details of the Iranian proposal were not made public the statements they have issued both before and after the meeting indicates that they haven’t actually budged an inch from where they were when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was Iran’s front man. They are still refusing to shut down nuclear plants, to stop enriching uranium or to have their horde of enriched uranium shipped out of the country so as to ensure that it is not used for a weapon. Nor have they shown the slightest interest in halting their parallel plutonium project by stopping their heavy water research.

 For all the talk about the Iranian charm offensive in which Rouhani plays, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu aptly put it, the “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” the fact is their nuclear stand is virtually identical to what it was when Ahmadinejad, the “wolf in wolf’s clothing,” was their president. If the West were to agree to their terms it would be merely a matter of time before the Iranians would, as the North Koreans did before them, evade their agreements and present the world with a nuclear fait accompli, secure in the knowledge that no one would be able to do a thing about it.

Given the fact that the real boss of Iran is Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and not Rouhani makes this easily understandable. All Rouhani has done is to change the atmospherics. When it comes to the actual policies of the country, they are unchanged because the real leadership is unchanged.

All that has changed is that for the first time, those in the West who want to find an excuse to back away from their commitments to stopping Iran have a rationale. In the past, Iran’s public leadership had no concerns about catering to Western sensibilities thereby rendering it difficult to make the argument that it was run by rational and sensible persons. Replacing Ahmadinejad with Rouhani allows those so inclined to project their own feelings about nuclear weapons onto Iran even if doing it so is the height of absurdity. But it is on that flimsy basis that Iran is asking the West to relax the economic sanctions that are crippling their economy.

Given the unchanged Iranian position, no one in Washington should be even considering loosening sanctions. To the contrary, this is exactly the moment for strengthening them and making it impossible for Iran to sell its oil or transact any business with the rest of the world. That is the only thing that could, even in theory, persuade Khamenei to authorize real concessions rather than merely recycling old proposals that were rightly rejected as merely slowing Iran’s march toward nuclear capability.

But with yet another round of negotiations scheduled for November, the Obama administration appears anxious to play along with Iran. By not contradicting the Iranians deceptive talk of progress, Washington is playing right into their hands. The more the talks are depicted as progressing, the harder it will be to break them off or to heighten the pressure on Tehran to do more than pay lip service to Western concerns. The result is a perfect storm that suits the ayatollah’s interests. They can play at moderation while their centrifuges keep spinning all winter if necessary. And that’s exactly what they’ll until Obama calls them out. But given the administration’s blind faith in diplomacy, it’s far from certain that moment will ever come no matter what the Iranians do.

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Who Let Iran Get So Close to a Nuke?

The smoke signals coming from the first session of the reconvened P5+1 talks in Geneva today don’t tell us much about whether Iran’s charm offensive is succeeding. The Iranians presented a plan to the group of negotiators representing the members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany that will do little to alter their drive to gain a nuclear weapon. Tehran is counting on the ardent desire of the Obama administration for an end to the confrontation over the issue echoed by some (though perhaps not all) of its European partners to enable them to at least draw out the negotiations over the coming months if not to fool the West into signing onto a deal that will be easily evaded by the ayatollahs.

So far, we have little indication as to whether the U.S. is willing to accept the sort of “bad deal” that Secretary of State John Kerry, let alone Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, has warned against. But there is one thing that we know. The reason why the negotiations are so critical is that over the past several years Iran has made so much progress toward the completion of a bomb that there isn’t time for a long drawn out diplomatic process. As the New York Times reports:

On Monday, a senior American official said that the United States wanted Iran to take steps that were “transparent and verifiable” to constrain its program and to assure the West that it was not intending to produce a nuclear bomb.

Iran’s nuclear efforts had advanced so much, the American official added, that Iran needed to take stops now to halt or even reverse its nuclear program so there was time to negotiate a comprehensive agreement.

It’s fair to point out that American officials have spent the last five years persuading those who are worried about the nuclear threat reassuring us that there is plenty of time to talk about it and that the “window of diplomacy” was still open. To that end, the Obama administration has wasted years on laughable attempts to engage the Islamist regime and on diplomacy aimed at assembling a weak international coalition willing to impose sanctions on Iran and a diplomatic process that consistently flopped. Thus, if Iran is so much closer to realizing its dream of obtaining a genocidal weapon and making diplomacy difficult it is only because they have successfully manipulated a U.S. administration that wanted to be deceived. That’s something to be taken into consideration as we observe the ability of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to persuade the West to restart diplomacy almost as if the past decade of talks had never occurred.

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The smoke signals coming from the first session of the reconvened P5+1 talks in Geneva today don’t tell us much about whether Iran’s charm offensive is succeeding. The Iranians presented a plan to the group of negotiators representing the members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany that will do little to alter their drive to gain a nuclear weapon. Tehran is counting on the ardent desire of the Obama administration for an end to the confrontation over the issue echoed by some (though perhaps not all) of its European partners to enable them to at least draw out the negotiations over the coming months if not to fool the West into signing onto a deal that will be easily evaded by the ayatollahs.

So far, we have little indication as to whether the U.S. is willing to accept the sort of “bad deal” that Secretary of State John Kerry, let alone Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, has warned against. But there is one thing that we know. The reason why the negotiations are so critical is that over the past several years Iran has made so much progress toward the completion of a bomb that there isn’t time for a long drawn out diplomatic process. As the New York Times reports:

On Monday, a senior American official said that the United States wanted Iran to take steps that were “transparent and verifiable” to constrain its program and to assure the West that it was not intending to produce a nuclear bomb.

Iran’s nuclear efforts had advanced so much, the American official added, that Iran needed to take stops now to halt or even reverse its nuclear program so there was time to negotiate a comprehensive agreement.

It’s fair to point out that American officials have spent the last five years persuading those who are worried about the nuclear threat reassuring us that there is plenty of time to talk about it and that the “window of diplomacy” was still open. To that end, the Obama administration has wasted years on laughable attempts to engage the Islamist regime and on diplomacy aimed at assembling a weak international coalition willing to impose sanctions on Iran and a diplomatic process that consistently flopped. Thus, if Iran is so much closer to realizing its dream of obtaining a genocidal weapon and making diplomacy difficult it is only because they have successfully manipulated a U.S. administration that wanted to be deceived. That’s something to be taken into consideration as we observe the ability of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to persuade the West to restart diplomacy almost as if the past decade of talks had never occurred.

While the details of the Iranian proposal were not made public, the regime’s representatives have made it clear that they have no intention of exporting their existing stockpile of enriched uranium or of halting their production of more nuclear fuel. But even if the West rejects, as they likely will, the Iranian proposal, there is little doubt that the talks will continue. But the Iranians have already scored a triumph by getting the U.S. to concede their right to a nuclear program, as President Obama said at the United Nations last month, albeit one whose purpose is peaceful. So long as Iran keeps enriching and their existing supply remains within their borders, they retain the capacity to quickly repossess it and get it up to military grade thus rendering the safeguards proposed by Western negotiators meaningless.

Most of those pushing for the new talks because of their belief in Rouhani’s supposed moderation have emphasized the need to turn the page on the failure of past diplomatic endeavors with Iran. But it is precisely because the Iranians have been so good at deceiving the West before that skepticism should be the main theme of American diplomacy with Iran.

This is, after all, not the first time that a president came into office determined to push diplomacy on this issue. When President Obama arrived at the White House in January 2009, he acted as if his predecessor had never tried to reach out to the Iranians. Though the Iranians had repeatedly stiffed the Bush administration’s efforts to cut a nuclear deal with them (with Rouhani being the point man in the deception at one point), President Obama insisted that the U.S. had to restart the process at square one as his outreach efforts were employed.

If rather than ignoring the past in 2009, Obama had built upon the experiences of the past the U.S. might not be in the difficult position in which it now finds itself with little margin for error when it comes to Iran. Had tough sanctions been imposed in 2009 rather than waiting until 2012, not only would the Islamist regime be far weaker, they would also be approaching nuclear talks without having used that time to build up its supply of enriched uranium.

The point of rehashing this history is not so much to blame the president for leaving the world so little margin of error on this threat — though he certainly deserves it — but to illustrate that there is a high price to pay for mistakes. Giving the diplomats more time to fail is not, as the administration seems to think, a cost-free exercise. Having spent five years failing to halt Iran, the same president is now embarking on a diplomatic process that may well prove to be open-ended and unlikely to succeed. Another such triumph for Iran may take the U.S. to the point where it may well be too late to use force to stop the Iranians. If so, instead of merely chalking that up to Iranian bad faith, we would do well to hold accountable those in the West that made this possible.

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A Bad Deal is the Only Kind Iran is Offering

Secretary of State John Kerry sounded a note of appropriate caution this past weekend when he said that although he believed the window for diplomacy with Iran was “cracking open,” he believes “no deal is better than a bad deal.” His willingness to admit that there was such a thing as a bad deal with Tehran was a sign that there were some limits to the wave of optimism sweeping through official Washington and the foreign policy establishment about the supposedly moderating influence of new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Iran’s position on its drive for nuclear capability.

But coming as it did the same day that an Iranian government spokesman made it clear that all Tehran would offer the West tomorrow when the diplomats convene in Geneva for another round of the P5+1 talks was exactly the kind of bad deal that Kerry said he fears, it is by no means clear as to whether his stance is more than rhetoric aimed at soothing the fears of a gathering of supporters of AIPAC to whom Kerry’s remarks were directed. It remains an open question as to whether the U.S. would adhere to President Obama’s declared refusal to countenance an Iranian bomb and therefore insist that they cease refining uranium and export all of their existing stockpile even if that means passing up the opportunity for an agreement that would end the danger of a conflict over the issue. Just as important, it is also uncertain that even if Kerry means what he says about an American refusal to accept an obviously inadequate agreement whether its European allies would follow suit. As last week’s signals from Britain and France to Israel showed, the rest of the members of the P5+1 negotiating team are united mostly by their desire to get out from under their commitments to stopping Iran rather than following through with more sanctions or force if a deal is never reached. If France and France jump ship and join Russia and China in seeking to put the issue aside with a deal that Iran can easily ignore or break, then Kerry’s promise may soon be put to the test.

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Secretary of State John Kerry sounded a note of appropriate caution this past weekend when he said that although he believed the window for diplomacy with Iran was “cracking open,” he believes “no deal is better than a bad deal.” His willingness to admit that there was such a thing as a bad deal with Tehran was a sign that there were some limits to the wave of optimism sweeping through official Washington and the foreign policy establishment about the supposedly moderating influence of new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Iran’s position on its drive for nuclear capability.

But coming as it did the same day that an Iranian government spokesman made it clear that all Tehran would offer the West tomorrow when the diplomats convene in Geneva for another round of the P5+1 talks was exactly the kind of bad deal that Kerry said he fears, it is by no means clear as to whether his stance is more than rhetoric aimed at soothing the fears of a gathering of supporters of AIPAC to whom Kerry’s remarks were directed. It remains an open question as to whether the U.S. would adhere to President Obama’s declared refusal to countenance an Iranian bomb and therefore insist that they cease refining uranium and export all of their existing stockpile even if that means passing up the opportunity for an agreement that would end the danger of a conflict over the issue. Just as important, it is also uncertain that even if Kerry means what he says about an American refusal to accept an obviously inadequate agreement whether its European allies would follow suit. As last week’s signals from Britain and France to Israel showed, the rest of the members of the P5+1 negotiating team are united mostly by their desire to get out from under their commitments to stopping Iran rather than following through with more sanctions or force if a deal is never reached. If France and France jump ship and join Russia and China in seeking to put the issue aside with a deal that Iran can easily ignore or break, then Kerry’s promise may soon be put to the test.

Caution notwithstanding, it’s clear that the administration is more than eager to play along with the Rouhanimania that has caused the West to revive a P5+1 process that has repeatedly failed. For all of the fact that President Obama and Kerry have always said the right thing about stopping Iran, their actions have never matched their rhetoric. From the point of view of this U.S. foreign policy team, the “window of diplomacy” they constantly refer to, is never closed no matter how often the Iranians have shut it in their faces. Their commitment to diplomacy and engagement with Iran is not so much a tactic as it is a function of their near blind faith in international agreements, the United Nations and multilateralism.

The Iranians know that as their decision to make it clear that they will never agree to the export of their stockpile of enriched uranium illustrates. They also know that the Europeans have never swerved from their intention to craft a nuclear deal that would allow the ayatollahs to hold onto a functioning nuclear program, albeit one with safeguards that would theoretically prevent it from being converted to nuclear use.

Thus rather than give the Iranians an incentive to face facts and give up their nuclear dream, the prelude to the latest talks have given them good reason to give nothing in their proposals that impinge on their ability to flout any deal and move quickly to realizing their nuclear ambition much as North Korea did after a similar round of diplomatic appeasement aimed at stopping them.

In Kerry’s favor is the fact that he won’t be in Geneva tomorrow, a source of no small amount of frustration for the Iranians. If he was offered the opportunity for a dramatic announcement and photo op, it’s hard to imagine that he would have the character or the principles to turn it down even if meant accepting a bad deal. What the Iranians are clearly hoping is that by using their time honored tactics of prevarication and delay, they can not only drag out the process — and thus buy their scientists even more time — but to lure Kerry to a future gathering where such a temptation might prove too much for him.

By now the administration should have learned that the only deal they would ever get from Iran is a bad one. No amount of economic pain felt by their citizens can convince Rouhani’s boss, Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to see reason and abandon their nuclear ambition. Nor do they believe in Obama’s threats. The ayatollahs see the president as a paper tiger that will never make good on the promise to use force as a last resort. And their contempt for him will grow if they can peel off his European allies away from the flimsy coalition against Iran that the president built. But in the long run, with Washington as enthralled by the false promise of Iranian moderation as London and Paris (let alone, Moscow or Beijing), the odds of Kerry being able to retain his aversion to a bad deal must be considered slim.

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Don’t Ignore Iran’s Revolutionary Guard

Political scientists who write about terrorism often discuss “spoilers,” those more radical personalities and outliers who seek to undercut any rapprochement by means of new attacks against the backdrop of diplomacy.

This was certainly the case with the Irish Republic Army and its talks with Great Britain, and it has also been true with regard to periods of rapprochement between the United States and Iran. In 1998, for example, vigilantes affiliated with the Iranian security forces attacked a busload of American businessmen in Tehran to study new opportunities given then-President Mohammad Khatami’s flirtation with change.

Let’s put aside the possibility that the Iranian government is simply playing good-cop, bad-cop in order to maximize the incentives it desires. Who wouldn’t want a loosening of sanctions when the economy has shrank 5.4 percent over the past year? And, instead, give Rouhani benefit of the doubt for a second. Even if he is sincere—and I see no reason to believe that is the case—then he still must overcome the overriding influence of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in which, unlike his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he has not served.

In an interview today, Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander of the IRGC, had made clear that the IRGC opposes any rapprochement with the United States. According to the Fars News Agency (with a translation provided by the Open Source Center):

Major General Mohammad Ali Ja’fari, the commander-in-chief of Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), has criticized the efforts of President Hasan Ruhani’s government to improve ties with the United States, calling them a “big mistake.” “Creating such moods is contrary to the words of the late imam [Ruhollah Khomeyni, the founder of the Islamic Republic] and the supreme leader [Ali Khamene'i] and is a big mistake,” Fars quoted him as telling Guards troops in North Khorasan Province. “The imam never said such a thing and never had a compromising stance toward America,” he added. Ja’fari said that certain people had misinterpreted and “misused” the leader’s remark on the importance of “heroic flexibility” in dealing with adversaries. These people wrongly think that “restoring relations with America will eliminate problems and sanctions,” he said. The IRGC commander said that “the people, the Guards Corps, and the Basij are vigilant and follow the path of the Islamic system.”

Let us hope that the United States will remain at least as vigilant as the IRGC, because the IRGC has the means and the will to test the United States Navy and challenge U.S. facilities and interests in the region. And, unlike the Iranian challenge posed to the Clinton administration in 1996 at Khobar Towers, let us hope that the United States will not let Iran’s good cop, bad cop strategy absolve the regime of accountability for its actions. It may seem ironic given Rouhani’s charm offensive, but Jafari’s posture suggests that the situation in the region is now far more dangerous than it was before Rouhani’s inauguration.

Political scientists who write about terrorism often discuss “spoilers,” those more radical personalities and outliers who seek to undercut any rapprochement by means of new attacks against the backdrop of diplomacy.

This was certainly the case with the Irish Republic Army and its talks with Great Britain, and it has also been true with regard to periods of rapprochement between the United States and Iran. In 1998, for example, vigilantes affiliated with the Iranian security forces attacked a busload of American businessmen in Tehran to study new opportunities given then-President Mohammad Khatami’s flirtation with change.

Let’s put aside the possibility that the Iranian government is simply playing good-cop, bad-cop in order to maximize the incentives it desires. Who wouldn’t want a loosening of sanctions when the economy has shrank 5.4 percent over the past year? And, instead, give Rouhani benefit of the doubt for a second. Even if he is sincere—and I see no reason to believe that is the case—then he still must overcome the overriding influence of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in which, unlike his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he has not served.

In an interview today, Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander of the IRGC, had made clear that the IRGC opposes any rapprochement with the United States. According to the Fars News Agency (with a translation provided by the Open Source Center):

Major General Mohammad Ali Ja’fari, the commander-in-chief of Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), has criticized the efforts of President Hasan Ruhani’s government to improve ties with the United States, calling them a “big mistake.” “Creating such moods is contrary to the words of the late imam [Ruhollah Khomeyni, the founder of the Islamic Republic] and the supreme leader [Ali Khamene'i] and is a big mistake,” Fars quoted him as telling Guards troops in North Khorasan Province. “The imam never said such a thing and never had a compromising stance toward America,” he added. Ja’fari said that certain people had misinterpreted and “misused” the leader’s remark on the importance of “heroic flexibility” in dealing with adversaries. These people wrongly think that “restoring relations with America will eliminate problems and sanctions,” he said. The IRGC commander said that “the people, the Guards Corps, and the Basij are vigilant and follow the path of the Islamic system.”

Let us hope that the United States will remain at least as vigilant as the IRGC, because the IRGC has the means and the will to test the United States Navy and challenge U.S. facilities and interests in the region. And, unlike the Iranian challenge posed to the Clinton administration in 1996 at Khobar Towers, let us hope that the United States will not let Iran’s good cop, bad cop strategy absolve the regime of accountability for its actions. It may seem ironic given Rouhani’s charm offensive, but Jafari’s posture suggests that the situation in the region is now far more dangerous than it was before Rouhani’s inauguration.

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Azerbaijan Convicts Iranian in Terror Case

On Friday, an Azerbaijani court convicted Fayzi Bahram on charges relating to a plot to attack the Israeli embassy in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital. According to the Azerbaijani press:

According to the indictment, Fayzi Bahram, an employee of the Ministry of Intelligence and National Security of the Islamic Republic of Iran, wanted to explode the Embassy of Israel in Azerbaijan. In his testimony during the pre-trial investigation, Fayzi Bahram said that he moved Baku in 2006. Fayzi Bahram said that he had been instructed to organize unauthorized protests outside the Embassy of Israel in Baku, inflict harm on embassy employees and explode the building….

The story should concern American policymakers for a variety of reasons. First, is the fact that Bahram came to Azerbaijan in 2006. This suggests he was part of a sleeper cell. The notion of Iranian sleeper cells has been the subject of much discussion in the Gulf Cooperation Council over the past several years. And, before that, the trial into the 1992 Mykonos Café assassinations in Berlin suggested the presence of Iranian sleeper cells in Germany. Should Tehran have infiltrated sleeper cells in Western-oriented countries, and if both President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei are truly dedicated to a new approach, then step one would be for Tehran to unilaterally withdraw its operatives.

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On Friday, an Azerbaijani court convicted Fayzi Bahram on charges relating to a plot to attack the Israeli embassy in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital. According to the Azerbaijani press:

According to the indictment, Fayzi Bahram, an employee of the Ministry of Intelligence and National Security of the Islamic Republic of Iran, wanted to explode the Embassy of Israel in Azerbaijan. In his testimony during the pre-trial investigation, Fayzi Bahram said that he moved Baku in 2006. Fayzi Bahram said that he had been instructed to organize unauthorized protests outside the Embassy of Israel in Baku, inflict harm on embassy employees and explode the building….

The story should concern American policymakers for a variety of reasons. First, is the fact that Bahram came to Azerbaijan in 2006. This suggests he was part of a sleeper cell. The notion of Iranian sleeper cells has been the subject of much discussion in the Gulf Cooperation Council over the past several years. And, before that, the trial into the 1992 Mykonos Café assassinations in Berlin suggested the presence of Iranian sleeper cells in Germany. Should Tehran have infiltrated sleeper cells in Western-oriented countries, and if both President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei are truly dedicated to a new approach, then step one would be for Tehran to unilaterally withdraw its operatives.

The second issue that is interesting is the fact that the suspect supposedly worked at the Ministry of Intelligence. While Western security officials tend to focus on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps when it comes to Iranian terrorism, Iran’s intelligence ministry has long run its own operations. In 2010, Kuwaiti security intercepted an Iranian intelligence ministry cell, allegedly planning assassinations of prominent Kuwaiti religious figures. The interesting thing about the intelligence ministry is that rather than contain them, Rouhani has actually empowered them.

Rouhani is a master diplomat. He has shifted Western perception of Iranian intentions. While the West is enthusiastic for diplomacy, it should take care about attributing sincerity to Rouhani, for there seems to be a dangerous dissonance between his words and the Islamic Republic’s actions.

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Iran’s False Charm Already Paying Off

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.

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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.

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For Our Arab Allies, It’s “East of Suez” All Over Again

Evelyn Gordon is absolutely correct when she writes that the U.S. romance with Iran “terrifies” our Arab allies, but she hits only the tip of the iceberg. Obama’s “bromance” with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is only the latest in a long line of presidential statements, decisions, and actions which have antagonized America’s Arab allies.

Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and the Sultanate of Oman have quietly but steadily supported the United States for years. Bahrain and Kuwait host important U.S. military contingents (I write this from the Louisville, Kentucky airport where I am returning from a brief with a Fort Knox-based U.S. Army unit heading to Kuwait in a few months). The Sultanate of Oman has been a force for moderation and quiet backchannel diplomacy for years, and played a crucial role in the months after 9/11 as action neared in Afghanistan. The United Arab Emirates has been at the forefront of the fight against the Muslim Brotherhood, the most dangerous group to both democracy and stability in the Arab Middle East.

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Evelyn Gordon is absolutely correct when she writes that the U.S. romance with Iran “terrifies” our Arab allies, but she hits only the tip of the iceberg. Obama’s “bromance” with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is only the latest in a long line of presidential statements, decisions, and actions which have antagonized America’s Arab allies.

Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and the Sultanate of Oman have quietly but steadily supported the United States for years. Bahrain and Kuwait host important U.S. military contingents (I write this from the Louisville, Kentucky airport where I am returning from a brief with a Fort Knox-based U.S. Army unit heading to Kuwait in a few months). The Sultanate of Oman has been a force for moderation and quiet backchannel diplomacy for years, and played a crucial role in the months after 9/11 as action neared in Afghanistan. The United Arab Emirates has been at the forefront of the fight against the Muslim Brotherhood, the most dangerous group to both democracy and stability in the Arab Middle East.

Imagine how the “Pivot to Asia” sounded to Gulf Arab leaders who, in their childhoods, heard British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s “East of Suez” speech and then saw the British military promptly abandon their Arab allies. It was against the backdrop of the British withdrawal that the United Arab Emirates, for example, experienced Iranian aggression firsthand when the Iranian military (with President Richard Nixon’s tacit approval) seized the disputed Tonb islands and Abu Musa.

Then, early in Obama’s first term, Hillary Clinton floated a trial balloon to extend a nuclear umbrella over the Gulf states should Iran ever go nuclear. Privately, our Gulf partners asked how they could ever trust such a guarantee since Obama and Clinton had been so willing to abandon the previous rock-solid guarantee that Iran would never go nuclear.

The Obama doctrine is a doctrine of betrayal. Just ask Georgia, Israel, Taiwan, South Korea, Honduras, Poland, and every Gulf Arab ally. Maybe pundits can spin, but there is no denying it in the perception of our Gulf allies. Alas, the reverberations of so quickly dispensing with commitments to allies will last long after Obama retires, and will be an insurmountable burden for U.S. diplomacy for decades to come.

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Iran’s Imprisoned Ayatollah Suffers Heart Attack

In July, I reported on the grave situation of Hossein Bourojerdi, one of Iran’s most courageous dissidents. Bourojerdi, who carries the honorific Shia Muslim title of “ayatollah,” is a veteran opponent of Iran’s ruling system of velayat e faqih, whereby Islamic jurists exercise total control over society and its institutions.

Bourojerdi was first incarcerated in 2006. At the time, hundreds of the ayatollah’s supporters valiantly attemped to stop him from being dragged out of his south Tehran home by the police. Since then, reports of Bourojerdi’s failing health have regularly surfaced. Now, Iranian human-rights activists have passed on the news that Bourojerdi, who is languishing in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, began experiencing heart failure last Sunday.

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In July, I reported on the grave situation of Hossein Bourojerdi, one of Iran’s most courageous dissidents. Bourojerdi, who carries the honorific Shia Muslim title of “ayatollah,” is a veteran opponent of Iran’s ruling system of velayat e faqih, whereby Islamic jurists exercise total control over society and its institutions.

Bourojerdi was first incarcerated in 2006. At the time, hundreds of the ayatollah’s supporters valiantly attemped to stop him from being dragged out of his south Tehran home by the police. Since then, reports of Bourojerdi’s failing health have regularly surfaced. Now, Iranian human-rights activists have passed on the news that Bourojerdi, who is languishing in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, began experiencing heart failure last Sunday.

Only after Bourojerdi coped with extreme pain and shortness of breath for a full day did the Evin guards finally escort him from his cell for what passes for medical attention, by which point the ayatollah had undergone a heart attack. “Not only was he not given any medication while at the infirmary,” noted the latest bulletin on Bourojerdi’s plight, “the prison authorities continued to refuse his family’s delivery of medication that he had been prescribed before.”

A few days before his heart attack, Bourojerdi sent a thunderous appeal to the United Nations General Assembly urging the international body to once and for all confront the issue of human-rights abuse by the Iranian regime:

I sit here, at the start of my eighth year of captivity; jailed by a religious dictatorship and charged with defending the freedom of thought, speech and expression and refusing to align with tyrants who forcibly lord over Iran… Has the time not come for your assembly to demand that these brutal totalitarians respond to how they dare to speak of Bahrain, Syria and Palestine, under the guise of sympathy, when they have plundered and stolen the wealth and national income of every Iranian, rendering them impoverished and putting them in the ultimate financial and economic crisis?

That time, of course, has not come. Bourojerdi’s missive passed unnoticed amidst all the cooing over the charm offensive launched by Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s new and–as we are endlessly informed–”moderate” president. While President Obama did, in his phone call with Rouhani, raise the continuing imprisonment of Saeed Abedini, a Christian pastor with American citizenship who has also been detained in Evin for the last year, the suffering of a Muslim cleric who has tirelessly advocated for the separation of mosque and state was deemed unworthy of even a mention.

But Bourojerdi’s case may yet receive the attention it warrants from an unexpected source. Ahmad Shaheed, the former foreign minister of the Maldives who presently serves as the UN’s “Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” has won plaudits from Iranian democracy activists for his forthright reports on the mullah’s human-rights abuses. Shaheed is certainly aware of Bourojerdi’s situation, having received a letter from supporters and family members of the ayatollah in 2011, in which they asserted that an “illegal ban” on prison visits was designed to compel Bourojerdi to confess to fabricated crimes.

In his most recent report, Shaheed carefully traced the regime’s repression of religious minorities, citing the predicament of Christians and Bahais who are especially vulnerable to legal charges of heresy and apostasy. Significantly, Shaheed concluded that:

There has been an apparent increase in the degree of seriousness of human rights violations in the Islamic Republic of Iran…alarming reports of retributive State action against individuals suspected of communicating with UN Special Procedures raises serious concern about the Government’s resolve to promote respect for human rights in the country (my emphasis.)

In other words, as well as refusing cooperation with UN nuclear inspectors, the regime is also criminalizing those who talk to the international body’s human-rights investigators. So far, Rouhani has given no indication that he will curb this intimidation. Indeed, his appointment of a hardliner with strong ties to Iran’s security apparatus, Mostafa Pourmohammadi, as the country’s minister of justice, does not bode well for Ayatollah Boroujerdi or any of the other activists that have run afoul of the Tehran regime.

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NYT’s Anti-Bibi Editorial Not Aging Well

Yesterday’s edition of the New York Times featured the paper’s very silly editorial attacking Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for advocating on behalf of his country’s fundamental rights–a basic responsibility of political leadership and one that should not be considered controversial. But the editorial was unwise not only for its inanity but also because it was the kind of editorial that would most likely rot rather than ripen with age.

And it only took a day for that process to emerge, as several stories today make clear. But first, it’s instructive to review the point of the editorial, which can be understood in one of the paragraphs helpfully placed early on in the editorial:

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Yesterday’s edition of the New York Times featured the paper’s very silly editorial attacking Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for advocating on behalf of his country’s fundamental rights–a basic responsibility of political leadership and one that should not be considered controversial. But the editorial was unwise not only for its inanity but also because it was the kind of editorial that would most likely rot rather than ripen with age.

And it only took a day for that process to emerge, as several stories today make clear. But first, it’s instructive to review the point of the editorial, which can be understood in one of the paragraphs helpfully placed early on in the editorial:

Mr. Netanyahu has legitimate reasons to be wary of any Iranian overtures, as do the United States and the four other major powers involved in negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. But it could be disastrous if Mr. Netanyahu and his supporters in Congress were so blinded by distrust of Iran that they exaggerate the threat, block President Obama from taking advantage of new diplomatic openings and sabotage the best chance to establish a new relationship since the 1979 Iranian revolution sent American-Iranian relations into the deep freeze.

They are not Netanyahu’s supporters in Congress but rather supporters of preventing a nuclear Iran. But acknowledging that would disrupt, of course, the leftist media’s obsession with the idea that Netanyahu is ever meddling where the New York Times thinks he doesn’t belong, namely American politics. The editors also stop just shy of calling the Israeli prime minister a liar, but indicate that they expect him to manipulate Congress into spreading false information. They also seem to think the American political system is powerless to stop Netanyahu from controlling American foreign policy even when the president of the United States disagrees with him.

And that’s only the third paragraph. “Wait till I get going,” a Times editorialist might say, echoing Vizzini. A day later, however, it’s appearing that the Times’s faith in Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s willingness to negotiate in good faith is baffling to … Hassan Rouhani:

Elsewhere, Rouhani elaborated on the achievements of his recent visit to New York during which he attended and addressed the UN General Assembly session, held meetings with different world leaders, and had a phone talk with US President Barack Obama, and said, “During the recent visit to the UN, we strove to prevent a new war in the region and we came to be successful in the trip.”

Referring to his phone talk with Obama on the way back to Iran from New York, he said, “Before my trip (to New York), the Americans had sent 5 messages to arrange a meeting between me and Obama, but I turned them down.”

Now, Rouhani did not, according to this report in the Iranian news agency, rule out the very idea of a “meeting,” though he does not get any more specific about the details of such a meeting. But he’s basically bragging about turning down the American president, who appears desperate to meet with him in this account. If Rouhani is telling the truth, then he assesses communication with the Obama administration strictly through its propaganda value. And if he’s not telling the truth, then he assumes he can make up stories designed to embarrass Obama with no consequences. Because Rouhani’s past does not reveal an inclination toward peaceful statesmanship, none of this will come as a surprise to those familiar with recent history.

And as Michael Rubin noted this morning, Rouhani is also apparently ruling out the contours of any reasonable deal on Iran’s nuclear program. Meanwhile, it appears that even John Kerry thinks Netanyahu was making sense:

Secretary of State John Kerry, in his first remarks about Iran since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel warned the United States to be wary of talks with the country, said on Thursday that the United States would negotiate with Tehran only if it provided proof that it would not pursue nuclear defense programs.

“Our hope is that there is a way forward,” Mr. Kerry said at a news conference here after a meeting with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and the Japanese defense and foreign ministers, adding that he could assure Israel that “nothing we do is going to be based on trust. It’s going to be based on steps,” in which Iran must prove it is not going to pursue a nuclear program, or it will face a cold shoulder from the United States. “A country that generally wants to have a peaceful program does not have difficulty proving that it’s peaceful,” he said.

If the Times has lost John Kerry, Benjamin Netanyahu should be the least of their worries.

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Rouhani Declares Enrichment Non-Negotiable

Last Friday, President Obama surprised the press when he announced that he had a telephone conversation with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, the first direct conversation between the U.S. and Iranian presidents since the Islamic Revolution. Obama expressed his optimism after his conversation that a nuclear deal was possible.

Perhaps someone should tell that to Rouhani. On October 2, Rouhani spoke to the Iranian press and gave his summary of the conversation. According to a translation provided by the Open Source Center, Voice of the Islamic Republic Radio 1 reported: “Speaking to journalists after a cabinet meeting on 2 October, Rouhani assured his countrymen that there will be no talks about the issue of nuclear technology and enrichment inside Iran.”

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Last Friday, President Obama surprised the press when he announced that he had a telephone conversation with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, the first direct conversation between the U.S. and Iranian presidents since the Islamic Revolution. Obama expressed his optimism after his conversation that a nuclear deal was possible.

Perhaps someone should tell that to Rouhani. On October 2, Rouhani spoke to the Iranian press and gave his summary of the conversation. According to a translation provided by the Open Source Center, Voice of the Islamic Republic Radio 1 reported: “Speaking to journalists after a cabinet meeting on 2 October, Rouhani assured his countrymen that there will be no talks about the issue of nuclear technology and enrichment inside Iran.”

Rouhani’s statements are not the exception, but the rule. Over at the Iran Tracker, analysts Will Fulton and Amir Touraj have catalogued a number of Iranian officials’ press statements in the past day or two walking back some of the flexibility that Rouhani implied.

Oops. Just as Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat once said one thing to American officials and quite the opposite to his domestic audience, so it seems that Rouhani is now doing the same. President Clinton for too long was willing to ignore Arafat’s duplicity, ultimately leading to a foreign policy train wreck. Let us hope that Obama has learned that a real change of Iranian policy would require saying the same thing to American and Iranian journalists. The White House should accept nothing less.

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Iran Danger Is Delay, Not Deal

President Obama met with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu today and reportedly sought to reassure him that the Iranian charm offensive wasn’t working. Despite the way the administration welcomed the alleged moderation of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and its determined efforts to initiate some form of dialogue with Tehran—Rouhani refused to meet or shake hands with the president in New York last week but deigned to accept a phone call from Obama before he left New York—the president is trying to convince Netanyahu that he isn’t budging from his pledge that Iran won’t be allowed to develop nuclear weapons and he won’t be fooled by Iran’s negotiating strategies. Despite expressing a desire for accelerated talks with the Iranians, the White House and the State Department are also trying to calm down Israelis and others who rightly see the way much of the mainstream media swoon for Rouhani as indicative of a desire to appease Tehran.

But the problem here isn’t just the obsequious manner with which the administration has pursued Iran but the cost of the diplomatic process they are trying to reboot. Iran’s intransigence on the nuclear issue—openly expressed by Rouhani—may well make a deal impossible. Iran has had many such offers in the past decade, including some that were highly favorable to the Islamist regime that would have enabled them to go on enriching uranium and to keep up the pretense that this activity was aimed at peaceful uses of atomic energy and always turned them down in the end. It is also possible that a principled and tough-minded American negotiating strategy would eventually expose the Rouhani initiative as a fraud.

But by going down the garden path with Iran again, President Obama is both buying time and lending much-needed credibility to an Islamic regime that deserves none. In doing so, he will make it even more likely that the Iranians will be able to reach their nuclear goal and is undermining support for any future action that would hold them accountable for their actions. Even if the talks fail, by falling prey to the Rouhani gambit, the president has already handed Iran a crucial victory.

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President Obama met with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu today and reportedly sought to reassure him that the Iranian charm offensive wasn’t working. Despite the way the administration welcomed the alleged moderation of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and its determined efforts to initiate some form of dialogue with Tehran—Rouhani refused to meet or shake hands with the president in New York last week but deigned to accept a phone call from Obama before he left New York—the president is trying to convince Netanyahu that he isn’t budging from his pledge that Iran won’t be allowed to develop nuclear weapons and he won’t be fooled by Iran’s negotiating strategies. Despite expressing a desire for accelerated talks with the Iranians, the White House and the State Department are also trying to calm down Israelis and others who rightly see the way much of the mainstream media swoon for Rouhani as indicative of a desire to appease Tehran.

But the problem here isn’t just the obsequious manner with which the administration has pursued Iran but the cost of the diplomatic process they are trying to reboot. Iran’s intransigence on the nuclear issue—openly expressed by Rouhani—may well make a deal impossible. Iran has had many such offers in the past decade, including some that were highly favorable to the Islamist regime that would have enabled them to go on enriching uranium and to keep up the pretense that this activity was aimed at peaceful uses of atomic energy and always turned them down in the end. It is also possible that a principled and tough-minded American negotiating strategy would eventually expose the Rouhani initiative as a fraud.

But by going down the garden path with Iran again, President Obama is both buying time and lending much-needed credibility to an Islamic regime that deserves none. In doing so, he will make it even more likely that the Iranians will be able to reach their nuclear goal and is undermining support for any future action that would hold them accountable for their actions. Even if the talks fail, by falling prey to the Rouhani gambit, the president has already handed Iran a crucial victory.

It is entirely plausible to argue, as Aaron David Miller does in Foreign Policy today, that it would be very difficult if not impossible for President Obama to get away with an accord with Iran that would enable the Iranians to continue on their nuclear path. After the Syria fiasco where his indecisiveness led him to hand a victory to Russia and its ally Bashar Assad, the president can’t afford to “play the fool” on Iran. He has staked his credibility on the issue. Given his domestic political problems and the growing signs that he is becoming a lame duck, Obama would also be foolish to pick another fight with Israel and its supporters. Moreover, even with the press and much of the foreign-policy establishment cheering the idea of backing away from confrontation with Iran, as Miller notes, “the mullahs aren’t going to charm anyone for very long, let alone transform public attitudes in Israel or America without significant and tangible deliverables.”

So what’s wrong with making nice with Rouhani and giving diplomacy another try? Plenty.

It should first be understood what Iran is seeking to accomplish. Their primary goal is to separate the U.S. from Europe on the nuclear issue. The Europeans have always been more eager to compromise with Iran than the U.S., and if they can weaken international support for the economic sanctions that were belatedly implemented by President Obama, they will do so. They also want to drive a wedge between Obama and the Israelis.

Equally important is that after repeatedly demonstrating their unwillingness to negotiate in good faith, the Iranians’ charm offensive looks like it will gain them more precious time to get closer to their nuclear goal. The Iranians are past masters at drawing out diplomatic proceedings and one should expect that the talks that Obama and Kerry say must be “swift” would undoubtedly drag on for many months and perhaps longer than that, with no guarantee of a successful outcome. The president is already prepared to wait until mid-October for an Iranian response to his outreach. That will be followed by more delays that will lead us into 2014 and beyond.

Then there is also the damage the willingness to buy into Rouhani’s faux moderation does to the Western consensus about eventually holding Iran accountable. His defenders argue that by giving diplomacy more chances, he will strengthen his ability to increase sanctions or even use force once the initiative is seen to have failed. But in the world of Barack Obama, diplomacy never really fails even if that is the only rational conclusion to be drawn from events. Each diplomatic failure will lead to another try that will also fail with the only result being that more time will be wasted, just as the president wasted his first five years in office on tactics that played into Tehran’s hands. Moreover, having allowed Rouhani to get away with playing the moderate even when it is obvious that this is a ruse, the president feeds the perception that Iran is the victim of Western pressure rather than a sponsor of terrorism that is seeking to expand the reach of its tyrannical regime.

So even if an administration desperate for a compromise solution is unlikely to get one from Rouhani, the charm offensive is still working very nicely to achieve Iranian goals. The danger here is not so much a deal but the delays that will bring us that much closer to an Iranian bomb. 

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Diplomatic Progress–Real or Imagined?

If good intentions and soaring rhetoric were enough to translate into diplomatic achievements, the Obama administration would have wracked up more achievements in the past week than any preceding presidency since Woodrow Wilson attended the Versailles conference.

First Syria agrees to give up its chemical weapons. Now Obama chats with Hassan Rouhani in the first direct conversation between an American and Iranian leader since the 1970s. Add in a domestic achievement of sorts–goading House Republicans into an ill-advised showdown over Obama’s health-care plan that could result in a government shutdown that the president will try to wrap around the Republicans’ elephant ears–and it’s easy to see why White House aides are jubilant. Only a few weeks ago the president was being written off as a lame duck; now he has suddenly been transformed into a candidate for another Nobel Peace Prize.

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If good intentions and soaring rhetoric were enough to translate into diplomatic achievements, the Obama administration would have wracked up more achievements in the past week than any preceding presidency since Woodrow Wilson attended the Versailles conference.

First Syria agrees to give up its chemical weapons. Now Obama chats with Hassan Rouhani in the first direct conversation between an American and Iranian leader since the 1970s. Add in a domestic achievement of sorts–goading House Republicans into an ill-advised showdown over Obama’s health-care plan that could result in a government shutdown that the president will try to wrap around the Republicans’ elephant ears–and it’s easy to see why White House aides are jubilant. Only a few weeks ago the president was being written off as a lame duck; now he has suddenly been transformed into a candidate for another Nobel Peace Prize.

Alas, it remains far from clear that the diplomatic breakthroughs of recent days will result in concrete changes on the ground. Rouhani certainly charmed politicians and pundits on his recent New York visit (I was among many who saw him speak) but he also refused to admit that Iran is trying to acquire a nuclear weapon or to offer a halt in enrichment, which is drawing Tehran closer to its long-cherished goal. The phone call with Obama was nice, but there has been no sign of Iranian concessions yet, notwithstanding Rouhani’s promises to conclude a peace deal within months.

Over at the Weekly Standard, Reuel Gerecht makes a compelling case for skepticism about Rouhani’s intentions, noting that he has a long record as a regime stalwart and proponent of the nuclear program. As a tactical matter, Rouhani may well be willing to stop short of a nuclear weapon for now in return for a relaxation of sanctions, but it is doubtful he will abandon the revolutionary regime’s desire for the ultimate weapon which the mullahs see as the ultimate guarantor of their Islamic revolution.

Then there is Syria. The UN passed a resolution calling on Assad to give up his chemical weapons. This was hailed as a “milestone after years of inertia,” which it arguably was, but the impact of this milestone was considerably vitiated by the fact that it was a Chapter VI resolution, not a Chapter VII, which means there are no automatic penalties for Syrian noncompliance. Getting authorization to compel compliance would require another UN Security Council vote which Assad’s buddy, Vladimir Putin, would almost certainly block.

Meanwhile the Syrian civil war continues unabated. At Foreign Policy’s website, Oubai Shahbandar of the Syrian Support Group, a pro-rebel organization, points out at that the Putin-brokered deal at the UN has unleashed Assad’s conventional military forces:

The Syrian regime’s Russian-manufactured battle tanks and Sukhoi air-to-ground attack aircraft, once hidden away when Western air strikes seemed imminent, are now once again relentlessly pounding towns and villages in liberated areas. Bombs are yet again being dropped on bakeries in rebel-held regions and residents in Damascus have noted the thunderous bombardments from Assad’s batteries as they target the eastern Ghouta district — the district hit in the horrific chemical attack of August 21.

Mass gassing has now been replaced by a systemic ghetto eradication campaign to close off, isolate, starve, and pummel the inhabitants of rebel neighborhoods.

In the past Obama has spoken of the need for the U.S. government to stop atrocities abroad; he even created an Atrocities Prevention Board for this purpose. But in Syria he has confined his attention to preventing one small set of atrocities–those committed with chemical weapons–while ignoring the far more pervasive atrocities carried out with conventional weaponry which might at least partially been stopped by American air strikes. The White House may be claiming success in its diplomatic offensive, but it is doubtful that many ordinary Syrians see it that way.

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Rouhani’s Holocaust Weasel Words

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani may have snubbed President Obama yesterday but almost everyone is still giving him full credit for not being Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The West’s favorite “moderate” mullah met with a gaggle of liberal mainstream media types Wednesday morning for a mostly off-the-record gathering and, despite being unwilling to pander much to their sensibilities, still left them thinking, in the words of New Yorker editor David Remnick, “That at least on the surface this is somebody who above all is interested in reversing the really consequential damage to the economy that sanctions have wrought over time.”

I’ve no doubt that is true, as the conceit of Rouhani’s mission is apparently to persuade the West that because he isn’t a raving lunatic like his predecessor Ahmadinejad, that should be enough to earn Iran the world’s trust. And the chief proof of this is his willingness to say that it was a bad thing that the Nazis killed Jews. At Remnick’s prodding, Rouhani said as much today. As Politico reports:

Toward the end of the meeting, Remnick, who had sparred with Ahmadinejad in past meetings, demanded to know if Rouhani would unequivocally reject his predecessor’s denial of the Holocaust.

Through an interpreter, Rouhani told Remnick and the other journalists that he condemned the “massacre” of Jews that took place during World War II but would leave it to historians to decide how many Jews had been killed.

While stopping short of condemning the Holocaust outright, Rouhani left Remnick with the impression that he was serious about improving Iran’s relationship with the West.

That’s nice and no doubt Rouhani’s dignified manner and trademark white turban are a big improvement over Ahmadinejad’s MAD magazine style charm, but if we’re really interested in the question of repudiating Holocaust denial, Rouhani’s response doesn’t quite cut it. Nor does his equally cagey answer to a similar question posed by CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in which he segued from a pro-forma condemnation of the “taking of human life, whether that life is Jewish life, Christian or Muslim” into saying his non-support of Nazi genocide shouldn’t be interpreted as being willing to recognize living Jews have rights, since that “does not mean that on the other hand you can say Nazis committed crimes against a group, now, therefore, they must usurp the land of another group and occupy it.” The point is, if you are agnostic about the scale of the Holocaust, you are, in effect, a denier. If you are against killing Jews but unwilling to grant that they may have rights to a country or the right to defend it, your supposedly moderate good intentions are meaningless.

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Iranian President Hassan Rouhani may have snubbed President Obama yesterday but almost everyone is still giving him full credit for not being Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The West’s favorite “moderate” mullah met with a gaggle of liberal mainstream media types Wednesday morning for a mostly off-the-record gathering and, despite being unwilling to pander much to their sensibilities, still left them thinking, in the words of New Yorker editor David Remnick, “That at least on the surface this is somebody who above all is interested in reversing the really consequential damage to the economy that sanctions have wrought over time.”

I’ve no doubt that is true, as the conceit of Rouhani’s mission is apparently to persuade the West that because he isn’t a raving lunatic like his predecessor Ahmadinejad, that should be enough to earn Iran the world’s trust. And the chief proof of this is his willingness to say that it was a bad thing that the Nazis killed Jews. At Remnick’s prodding, Rouhani said as much today. As Politico reports:

Toward the end of the meeting, Remnick, who had sparred with Ahmadinejad in past meetings, demanded to know if Rouhani would unequivocally reject his predecessor’s denial of the Holocaust.

Through an interpreter, Rouhani told Remnick and the other journalists that he condemned the “massacre” of Jews that took place during World War II but would leave it to historians to decide how many Jews had been killed.

While stopping short of condemning the Holocaust outright, Rouhani left Remnick with the impression that he was serious about improving Iran’s relationship with the West.

That’s nice and no doubt Rouhani’s dignified manner and trademark white turban are a big improvement over Ahmadinejad’s MAD magazine style charm, but if we’re really interested in the question of repudiating Holocaust denial, Rouhani’s response doesn’t quite cut it. Nor does his equally cagey answer to a similar question posed by CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in which he segued from a pro-forma condemnation of the “taking of human life, whether that life is Jewish life, Christian or Muslim” into saying his non-support of Nazi genocide shouldn’t be interpreted as being willing to recognize living Jews have rights, since that “does not mean that on the other hand you can say Nazis committed crimes against a group, now, therefore, they must usurp the land of another group and occupy it.” The point is, if you are agnostic about the scale of the Holocaust, you are, in effect, a denier. If you are against killing Jews but unwilling to grant that they may have rights to a country or the right to defend it, your supposedly moderate good intentions are meaningless.

That these stands are calculated to convince Western elites that Rouhani is a decent person while still giving him cover at home is a tribute to the cleverness of the Iranian tactic. After all, contrary to some other statements uttered during the charm offensive, there is more to Iranian anti-Semitism than just Ahmadinejad’s personal obsessions. Iranian TV often broadcasts material that merges the two topics by claiming that Jews have exaggerated the extent of the Holocaust in order to “steal” Palestine from the Arabs and hoodwink the United States out of money. Rouhani’s mention of the doubts about how many Jews died is a signal to Iranians and other Islamists that he is very much on the same page as Ahmadinejad but knows how to talk to Westerners.

Seen in that context, far from Rouhani’s statements being a measure of his sanity or moderation, they are, in fact, an indicator that he is very much part of the same Islamist mentality that produced Ahmadinejad and his boss Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. What is going on here is a carefully calculated ruse that is, even after Rouhani’s snub of Obama, working well to disarm the West of any sense of outrage about Tehran’s pursuit of nuclear capability.

That the mainstream media is willing to go along with this game shows just how uncomfortable many of them are with the need to honestly confront the issue of Iran’s nuclear capability and the transparently dishonest manner in which it has negotiated with the West for over a decade. 

UPDATE:

It turns out that Rouhani’s so-called condemnation of the Holocaust is even flimsier than we thought. After CNN broadcast its interview with Rouhani conducted by Christiane Amanpour, the FARS News Agency condemned their translation of his remarks about the Holocaust as largely a fabrication. The official organ of the Iranian government provided an exact translation of what he said and matched it with what CNN broadcast and then published on their website. When the two are compared it is clear that the network expanded on what he said to help convey the impression that he was condemning Holocaust denial when it is clear that he did no such thing.

Here’s the CNN account:

CNN Question: “One of the things your predecessor (President Ahmadinejad) used to do from this very platform was deny(ing) the holocaust and pretend(ing) it was a myth, I want to know you, your position on the holocaust, do you accept what it was, and what was it?”

CNN’s Translation: “I’ve said before that I am not a historian and then, when it comes to speaking of the dimensions of the Holocaust, it is the historians that should reflect on it. But in general I can tell you that any crime that happens in history against humanity, including the crime that Nazis committed towards the Jews as well as non-Jews is reprehensible and condemnable. Whatever criminality they committed against the Jews, we condemn, the taking of human life is contemptible, it makes no difference whether that life is Jewish life, Christian or Muslim, for us it is the same, but taking the human life is something our religion rejects but this doesn’t mean that on the other hand you can say Nazis committed crime against a group now therefore, they must usurp the land of another group and occupy it. This too is an act that should be condemned. There should be an even-handed discussion”.

Here’s what Rouhani actually said:

“I have said before that I am not a historian and historians should specify, state and explain the aspects of historical events, but generally we fully condemn any kind of crime committed against humanity throughout the history, including the crime committed by the Nazis both against the Jews and non-Jews, the same way that if today any crime is committed against any nation or any religion or any people or any belief, we condemn that crime and genocide. Therefore, what the Nazis did is condemned, but the aspects that you talk about, clarification of these aspects is a duty of the historians and researchers, I am not a history scholar.”

While the two have similarities, there is no doubt that the news outlet airbrushed Rouhani’s comments to the point where they are far more acceptable for a Western audience. The actual remarks make it clear that Rouhani is as much of an agnostic about the extent of the Holocaust as Ahmadinejad. After all, Rouhani’s predecessor never said that no Jews were killed but said it was vastly exaggerated, the false argument that all Holocaust deniers try to make.

It is up to CNN to explain this attempt to falsify the content of the interview that goes beyond the usual discrepancies that often pop up in translations and crosses over into editorial malfeasance.

Added together with the other remarks uttered by Rouhani, this makes the claims of those who say Rouhani represents a genuine change in Iran even less credible than before.

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Obama’s Confused Foreign Policy

If there is one point that President Obama’s defenders have made in favor of his muddled Syria policy, it is its popularity. Not so fast. A new New York Times/CBS News poll finds “that 52 percent disapproved of the way Mr. Obama was handling the situation in Syria.”

Moreover, Americans aren’t happy with Obama’s foreign policy in general: “Forty-nine percent disapproved of Mr. Obama’s foreign policy efforts, up 10 points since early June, and 40 percent approved. The president’s negative rating on foreign policy has grown among Americans of all political stripes, with disapproval up 8 points among Democrats, 10 points among Republicans and 13 points among independents.”

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If there is one point that President Obama’s defenders have made in favor of his muddled Syria policy, it is its popularity. Not so fast. A new New York Times/CBS News poll finds “that 52 percent disapproved of the way Mr. Obama was handling the situation in Syria.”

Moreover, Americans aren’t happy with Obama’s foreign policy in general: “Forty-nine percent disapproved of Mr. Obama’s foreign policy efforts, up 10 points since early June, and 40 percent approved. The president’s negative rating on foreign policy has grown among Americans of all political stripes, with disapproval up 8 points among Democrats, 10 points among Republicans and 13 points among independents.”

With his mishandling of Syria, Obama appears to have thrown away, at least for now, the foreign-policy advantage he had wrested away from Republicans largely with the SEAL raid to kill Osama bin Laden.

I have previously written that presidents must not make foreign-policy decisions based on public opinion polls, so simply because the public thinks the Obama administration’s foreign policy is wrong doesn’t necessarily make it so. But in this case I think the public is onto something. What the public perceives–the same thing that much of the world perceives–is that Obama is weak and vacillating, deliberative but indecisive.

Obama’s plan to launch cruise missiles against Syria may not have been particularly popular, but pretty much everyone is still dismayed to see a president lay down a “red line” and then not enforce it. Instead, the president has grabbed a face-saving but probably unenforceable deal to rid Syria of its chemical weapons while making a de facto commitment to keep the murderous Bashar Assad regime in power.

Obama’s defenders claimed that his flexibility on Syria would encourage a deal with Iran, but he was stiffed at the UN where Hassan Rouhani delivered a hardline speech and then refused to attend a luncheon where he might have shaken Obama’s hand–a handshake that the White House fervently desired. Administration insiders pooh-poohed this small defeat, explaining that Rouhani has to cater to his own domestic opinion and can’t be seen as being too eager to reach out to the United States. But if that’s the case–if Rouhani can’t even risk a handshake with Obama–what makes Obama think he will sign off on some kind of grand bargain that will force Iran to renounce its long-held goal of acquiring nuclear weapons? The general public is actually more realistic than the White House on the prospect of better relations with Iran: “Fewer than 1 in 4 think they will get better in the next few years, while a third think they will get worse, and 4 in 10 think they will stay about the same.”

Ironically, in pursuit of chimerical results in the Middle East, Obama has abandoned his long-standing desire to “pivot” or “rebalance” to the Pacific. Ian Bremmer of the Eurasia Group counted the number of time that in his UN speech Obama mentioned the following countries:

Iran 25
Syria 20
Israel 15
Palestine 11

Compare this with mentions of Asian countries:

China 1
Japan 0
India 0
Koreas 0

The focus on the Middle East isn’t wrong–I have long been skeptical of Obama’s professed desire to disengage from the region. But the fact that he is ignoring East Asia, something he attacked his predecessor for doing, is yet another sign of how confused his foreign policy has become. That’s something that Americans instinctively understand even if they don’t follow every nuance of foreign policy.

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Rouhani Treats Obama Like a Chump

Yesterday, President Obama was left with egg on his face. Administration officials had been telling the press for days that the president would meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during the opening of the General Assembly of the United Nations. But when it came time for the two to come together or to bump into each other and shake hands in an accidentally-on-purpose arranged encounter, the Iranians said nothing doing. The Iranians told the press that it was “too complicated” for the meeting to take place and administration officials were reduced to explaining the snub by saying that it would have caused political problems for Rouhani at home. Combined with Rouhani’s speech to the General Assembly of the U.N. that was something less than the olive branch that those hoping for a rapprochement with the Islamic Republic were expecting, the Iranians sent the administration an unmistakable message. If you want to appease us, don’t think we’ll make it easy on you.

There are many good reasons to distrust the Iranian charm offensive and Jeffrey Goldberg gives a few in his column at Bloomberg today. Rouhani’s goal is to lift the international sanctions on Iran while preserving its right to go on enriching uranium (as well as developing a plutonium option) and supporting terrorism around the globe, not to help Barack Obama bring peace to the Middle East. But yesterday’s events didn’t tell us as much about whether Rouhani is a sincere advocate of change as it did about the way the Iranians think about President Obama. The president’s apologists like Goldberg believe the Rouhani gambit we’ve been debating recently is the product of Obama’s toughness, much as they also cling to the illusion that the debacle in Syria stems from the president’s strength rather than weakness. But Rouhani’s behavior in New York yesterday showed that he did not come to the UN as a supplicant but as someone who knows that he has Obama just where he wants him. By demonstrating that he isn’t a cheap date but must instead be wooed by the West with concessions, Rouhani gave us a good idea of the course of the next round of negotiations that the United States is about to embark upon with Iran. Instead of being eager to embrace Obama in order to prove their desire for diplomacy and to avert the threat of Western force being employed to end their nuclear dreams, the Iranians know that Obama has already swallowed the bait. This wasn’t the first time Rouhani had humiliated the West since he is a veteran of past deceptive diplomatic encounters, but we also know it won’t be the last.

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Yesterday, President Obama was left with egg on his face. Administration officials had been telling the press for days that the president would meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during the opening of the General Assembly of the United Nations. But when it came time for the two to come together or to bump into each other and shake hands in an accidentally-on-purpose arranged encounter, the Iranians said nothing doing. The Iranians told the press that it was “too complicated” for the meeting to take place and administration officials were reduced to explaining the snub by saying that it would have caused political problems for Rouhani at home. Combined with Rouhani’s speech to the General Assembly of the U.N. that was something less than the olive branch that those hoping for a rapprochement with the Islamic Republic were expecting, the Iranians sent the administration an unmistakable message. If you want to appease us, don’t think we’ll make it easy on you.

There are many good reasons to distrust the Iranian charm offensive and Jeffrey Goldberg gives a few in his column at Bloomberg today. Rouhani’s goal is to lift the international sanctions on Iran while preserving its right to go on enriching uranium (as well as developing a plutonium option) and supporting terrorism around the globe, not to help Barack Obama bring peace to the Middle East. But yesterday’s events didn’t tell us as much about whether Rouhani is a sincere advocate of change as it did about the way the Iranians think about President Obama. The president’s apologists like Goldberg believe the Rouhani gambit we’ve been debating recently is the product of Obama’s toughness, much as they also cling to the illusion that the debacle in Syria stems from the president’s strength rather than weakness. But Rouhani’s behavior in New York yesterday showed that he did not come to the UN as a supplicant but as someone who knows that he has Obama just where he wants him. By demonstrating that he isn’t a cheap date but must instead be wooed by the West with concessions, Rouhani gave us a good idea of the course of the next round of negotiations that the United States is about to embark upon with Iran. Instead of being eager to embrace Obama in order to prove their desire for diplomacy and to avert the threat of Western force being employed to end their nuclear dreams, the Iranians know that Obama has already swallowed the bait. This wasn’t the first time Rouhani had humiliated the West since he is a veteran of past deceptive diplomatic encounters, but we also know it won’t be the last.

The White House’s disappointment at Rouhani being unwilling to shake hands with the president was absurd enough. But even the New York Times was unable to spin the Iranian’s speech to the GA as anything but a disappointment to those who have invested so heavily in the notion that he represents an opportunity for genuine change in Iran.

Rouhani’s address can only be seen as “moderate” when compared to the wacky rants of his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He didn’t deny the Holocaust nor openly threaten Israel with destruction. But he gave little satisfaction to those expecting him to inaugurate a new age of understanding with a lengthy litany of complaints about the West as well as an almost impenetrable barrage of double talk about Syria, nukes, and terrorism.

Rouhani’s appeal for “tolerance” rang false, coming as it did from a government that persecutes religious minorities and continues to be a font of anti-Semitic incitement aimed at Israel and its supporters. The same can be said of his denunciation of terrorism, coming as it did from an official of a government that is the leading state sponsor of terror in the world.

Iran’s real boss, Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was wise to back Rouhani’s play since the charm offensive has given the Obama administration the excuse it needed to begin the process of backing away from its promise to confront Iran on the nuclear issue. But the snub and the cold speech show they have no intention of making it easy for Obama to appease them. The Iranians show every sign of understanding that the way to draw out the next round of talks is to play hard to get and make the Americans bid against themselves in an effort to entice them to play ball. By portraying Rouhani as being squeezed by hardliner rivals, they have provided the justification for Western concessions and excuses that will be portrayed as necessary in order to help him.

For five years the Iranians have been acting as if they thought President Obama was a paper tiger whose threats should be discounted. But yesterday they showed they think he isn’t just weak but a chump who can be played and reeled in slowly as they buy more time to achieve their nuclear ambitions.

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Rouhani Fever at the UN

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.

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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.

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Obama Talks From Weakness, Not Strength

After flubbing his plan for an attack on Syria and being trapped into a Russian-sponsored process designed to preserve the Assad regime, President Obama doesn’t have much foreign-policy credibility these days. But what little he has left is about to be spent on a new diplomatic initiative with Iran that will apparently be kicked off this week in New York with a face-to-face meeting between the leader of the free world and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Perhaps even more than Obama’s effective handing off of responsibility for Syria’s chemical weapons to Russian President Vladimir Putin, the appointment with Rouhani will make it clear that this administration has no appetite for a confrontation with its enemies, signaling a new era in the Middle East in which the tyrants of Tehran and Damascus and their terrorist auxiliaries need not fear the United States.

That is a conclusion that the president’s defenders reject absolutely. They claim that whatever the provenance of the Russian proposal or the lack of “style” points (to use the president’s own words) in his fumbling approach to Congress on Syria, if it results in Assad losing his chemical weapons it is still a good thing. They argue that Obama’s inability to pull the trigger on Syria will have no impact on Iran’s evaluation of American intentions on its nuclear ambitions. Further, they say the U.S. has nothing to lose in talking to Iran and much to gain, since failure in negotiations will simply strengthen the president’s hand when he then decides to use force.

If the administration was operating from a position of strength and with its intentions to uphold its interests undoubted, then these arguments might make sense. But the problem with both the Syrian fiasco and the opening to Iran is that it is no secret that the president has agreed to them out of weakness, not strength. What’s more, both the Syrians and the Iranians know it. The United States may be still be the world’s sole superpower and Syria and Iran midgets by comparison. But so long as these countries and their Russian friend know America is led by a man who choked when he could have struck Syria and is desperate for excuses to avoid the confrontation he has long threatened Iran with, they know who has the upper hand in talks.

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After flubbing his plan for an attack on Syria and being trapped into a Russian-sponsored process designed to preserve the Assad regime, President Obama doesn’t have much foreign-policy credibility these days. But what little he has left is about to be spent on a new diplomatic initiative with Iran that will apparently be kicked off this week in New York with a face-to-face meeting between the leader of the free world and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Perhaps even more than Obama’s effective handing off of responsibility for Syria’s chemical weapons to Russian President Vladimir Putin, the appointment with Rouhani will make it clear that this administration has no appetite for a confrontation with its enemies, signaling a new era in the Middle East in which the tyrants of Tehran and Damascus and their terrorist auxiliaries need not fear the United States.

That is a conclusion that the president’s defenders reject absolutely. They claim that whatever the provenance of the Russian proposal or the lack of “style” points (to use the president’s own words) in his fumbling approach to Congress on Syria, if it results in Assad losing his chemical weapons it is still a good thing. They argue that Obama’s inability to pull the trigger on Syria will have no impact on Iran’s evaluation of American intentions on its nuclear ambitions. Further, they say the U.S. has nothing to lose in talking to Iran and much to gain, since failure in negotiations will simply strengthen the president’s hand when he then decides to use force.

If the administration was operating from a position of strength and with its intentions to uphold its interests undoubted, then these arguments might make sense. But the problem with both the Syrian fiasco and the opening to Iran is that it is no secret that the president has agreed to them out of weakness, not strength. What’s more, both the Syrians and the Iranians know it. The United States may be still be the world’s sole superpower and Syria and Iran midgets by comparison. But so long as these countries and their Russian friend know America is led by a man who choked when he could have struck Syria and is desperate for excuses to avoid the confrontation he has long threatened Iran with, they know who has the upper hand in talks.

Jeffrey Goldberg remains one of the more sensible of Obama’s defenders and he has rightly derided the president’s record on Syria as “disturbing.” He also rightly puts down Rouhani’s charm offensive as “nothing more than public relations until proven otherwise.” But he also continues to cling to the notion that what has brought about the unsatisfactory deal with Russia on Syria and enticed Rouhani to come calling was Obama’s “toughness.” But for any objective observer to categorize the U.S. stance in the Middle East as “tough” requires us to come up with a new definition for the word.

Goldberg concedes Obama looked bad on Syria but still insists that his threat of force made any deal possible. But what happened was damaging not just because it has resulted in what looks to be U.S. acquiescence to Assad remaining in power indefinitely but because it showed that the president wouldn’t follow through once he had threatened force. In other words, the world now knows the president lacks the will to act on his own authority and is also sadly aware that there is a bipartisan congressional majority opposing any use of force. That’s a worse blow to U.S. credibility than if he had never issued any threats at all. The notion that Obama will now be empowered to strike if the Syrians and Russians thwart accountability on chemical weapons is absurd. They know very well that no matter what John Kerry says, the administration has moved on and will never attack Syria.

As for Iran, Goldberg also gives Obama credit for imposing tough sanctions on Iran that has created pressure on the regime. He also thinks the team of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu playing “bad cop” to Obama’s “ambivalent cop” can force Iran to make a nuclear deal that will work. But the record of the last five years in which Obama’s actions have never matched his rhetoric has convinced the real boss in Tehran—Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—that what was needed was a soft voice to entice Obama into endless negotiations, not the cartoonlike harshness of Rouhani’s predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. By meeting with Rouhani, Obama is signaling that he is falling for this tactic. But rather than Rouhani being on the spot as Goldberg insists, it is actually President Obama who will feel the need to make concessions to keep the talks going so as to avoid being put in a position where he will be forced to act.

Iran wants sanctions lifted, but there is no evidence that the supreme leader is the one who thinks he’s in a corner. The ayatollahs have already observed that the one place Obama never wants to be is in a corner where he is forced to back up his threats. Meeting with Rouhani and treating this more presentable thug as an equal and a negotiating partner will send a signal throughout the Middle East that Iran is emerging from its diplomatic isolation. Combined with its triumph in Syria where, along with the Russians, it has saved Assad, that allows the Islamist regime to believe it can string out the West for as long as it needs to achieve its nuclear ambitions with no real fear that the U.S. will ever pull the plug on the talks or back up its threats.

Goldberg is right when he says that the only constant in the world is change. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned it is that President Obama and his foreign-policy team are incapable of reacting to the shifting sands of the Middle East or to present their positions to the world in a way that makes dangerous regimes fear us. Whatever follows from these diplomatic initiatives will be the result of the president’s weakness, not his strength.

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A Brief History of Iranian Holocaust Denial

Iranian Holocaust denial—while the stuff of international headlines—during the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad presidency neither began when Ahmadinejad took office nor did it end when Ahmadinejad’s term ended. Some journalists believe that the bedrock ideology of the Islamic Republic has changed since Hassan Rouhani’s election. Some American journalists appear to have given more credence to Rouhani’s alleged Rosh Hashanah tweet than they do the Islamic Republic’s record.

When it comes to Iranian Holocaust denial and revisionism, George Michael, author of The Enemy of my Enemy, had an informative article in the Middle East Quarterly several years back:

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Iranian Holocaust denial—while the stuff of international headlines—during the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad presidency neither began when Ahmadinejad took office nor did it end when Ahmadinejad’s term ended. Some journalists believe that the bedrock ideology of the Islamic Republic has changed since Hassan Rouhani’s election. Some American journalists appear to have given more credence to Rouhani’s alleged Rosh Hashanah tweet than they do the Islamic Republic’s record.

When it comes to Iranian Holocaust denial and revisionism, George Michael, author of The Enemy of my Enemy, had an informative article in the Middle East Quarterly several years back:

Holocaust denial was an outgrowth of Iranian anti-Semitism, propelled by the Islamic Republic’s antipathy toward Israel. Long before Ahmadinejad shocked the West with his blunt rhetoric, Supreme Leader ‘Ali Khamenei suggested the Holocaust to be an exaggeration. ‘Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, an Iranian figure often labeled a pragmatist by Western journalists, voiced morale support for Holocaust revisionists in the West, suggesting the West persecuted one prominent denier for “the doubt he cast on Zionist propaganda.” However, it was during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami, whose rhetorical calls for a dialogue of civilizations won European and U.N. plaudits, that the Islamic Republic became a sanctuary for revisionists. Tehran granted asylum not only to [Swiss Holocaust denier Jürgen] Graf but also to Wolfgang Fröhlick, an Austrian engineer who argued in court under oath that Zyklon-B could not be used to kill humans. Indeed, it was under Khatami that Iranian policy shifted from anti-Zionism to unabashed anti-Semitism.

In August 2003, the Iranian government invited Frederick Töben, a retired German school teacher living in Australia, to speak before the International Conference on the Palestinian Intifada held in Tehran in which he impugned the Holocaust by contending that Auschwitz concentration camp was physically too small for the mass killing of Jews….

Of course, this was at a time when Rouhani was a top regime official and when pundits now singing Rouhani’s praises in the New York Times and elsewhere actually worked in the Foreign Ministry’s “Institute for Political and International Studies,” a sponsor of the Holocaust revisionism.

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What to Make of Rouhani’s Letter?

Over at AEI-Ideas, I take a look at Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s op-ed in today’s Washington Post and argue that, while we shouldn’t be afraid to take “yes” for an answer, Rouhani’s sincerity is extremely unclear. Both the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and the late Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi made grand gestures to demonstrate their respective changes of heart.

Alas, reading the tea leaves back in Tehran does not give cause for optimism. As Will Fulton points out in his invaluable “Iran News Round Up,” on September 17, Rouhani suggested creating a commission “to pursue spiritual and material compensation” from the United States and United Kingdom for their role in the 1953 coup against Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq.

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Over at AEI-Ideas, I take a look at Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s op-ed in today’s Washington Post and argue that, while we shouldn’t be afraid to take “yes” for an answer, Rouhani’s sincerity is extremely unclear. Both the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and the late Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi made grand gestures to demonstrate their respective changes of heart.

Alas, reading the tea leaves back in Tehran does not give cause for optimism. As Will Fulton points out in his invaluable “Iran News Round Up,” on September 17, Rouhani suggested creating a commission “to pursue spiritual and material compensation” from the United States and United Kingdom for their role in the 1953 coup against Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq.

While that might sound good to a self-flagellating audience of American intellectuals, putting aside whether the coup was wise or not given the Cold War context, the simple fact is that the Iranian clergy was complicit in the coup and, indeed, had made an alliance of convenience with the U.S., British, and Iranian military: All feared Mosaddeq’s populism, which, to be frank, was about as democratic as Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s in Haiti.

That Rouhani wants the United States to pay Iran for the 1953 coup which his teachers and predecessors supported shows just how manipulative and insincere he is in his populist games in Tehran and Washington.

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Trust Iran’s No Nuke Pledge?

It’s quite amazing how many pundits and journalists treat Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s promise that Iran does not seek nuclear weapons with anything besides great skepticism.

First of all, Iranian leaders have a history of making sweeping promises to Western audiences and then violating the same promises. Several years ago, I chronicled a number of these promises, here. My favorite? Promising to lift the fatwa ordering British author Salman Rushdie’s murder. On May 18, 1999, the Iranian government finally promised to lift the fatwa in return for the British reopening their embassy in Tehran. The British obliged. The next day, the Iranian government re-imposed its bounty on Rushdie. Indeed, killing Rushdie remains one of the missions listed on this recent Iranian application to be a suicide bomber.

That Rouhani is making the vow should give pause, given how Rowhani once expounded on a strategy to feint concession while advancing Iran’s nuclear program. More on Iranian strategy, here.

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It’s quite amazing how many pundits and journalists treat Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s promise that Iran does not seek nuclear weapons with anything besides great skepticism.

First of all, Iranian leaders have a history of making sweeping promises to Western audiences and then violating the same promises. Several years ago, I chronicled a number of these promises, here. My favorite? Promising to lift the fatwa ordering British author Salman Rushdie’s murder. On May 18, 1999, the Iranian government finally promised to lift the fatwa in return for the British reopening their embassy in Tehran. The British obliged. The next day, the Iranian government re-imposed its bounty on Rushdie. Indeed, killing Rushdie remains one of the missions listed on this recent Iranian application to be a suicide bomber.

That Rouhani is making the vow should give pause, given how Rowhani once expounded on a strategy to feint concession while advancing Iran’s nuclear program. More on Iranian strategy, here.

Now, some analysts point to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s alleged fatwa banning nuclear weapons. Alas, while Khamenei lists his fatwas on his website, the so-called nuclear fatwa is not among them. Why bother putting something in writing if diplomats are willing to embrace what they have neither seen nor read?

Diplomats often put process against substance. Giddiness at the possibility of sitting down with adversaries too often trumps the results of such meetings. Until Supreme Leader Khamenei publicly and unequivocally announces the suspension of Iran’s illicit uranium enrichment, forfeiture of its more highly-enriched stockpiles, and an opening of all facilities, both declared and undeclared to inspectors, then Rowhani’s outreach must be interpreted as more a tactic for delay than sincere.

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