Commentary Magazine


Topic: U.S.-Iranian relations

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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The Rouhani Fan Club Jamboree

The foreign policy establishment found a new hero. No, it’s not Secretary of State John Kerry. Kerry is being backed by most of the talking heads even as he charts a course for disaster in the Middle East. But as much as people like Aaron David Miller and Fareed Zakaria are working hard to vouch for what even they acknowledge to be a fool’s errand, the secretary is nowhere near as popular in the press these days as Hassan Rouhani, the president-elect of Iran. Evidence of this was seen yesterday in the New York Times when it published a front-page puff piece in the form of its Saturday profile that any liberal American politician would sell his soul for. According to the Times, Rouhani is the sort of “can do” politician that can make things happen in Iran, utilizing his close ties with the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Rouhani comes across in the piece as so pragmatic and moderate that it makes you wonder how it is that relations with the Islamic Republic can be so strained with such people running Iran.

The reason for the enthusiasm in Washington and in the liberal press for Rouhani isn’t a puzzle. By portraying the man elected to the largely symbolic post of president of Iran as a man of peace, some hope to not merely defuse tensions between Iran and the West over the regime’s nuclear program but to revive support for diplomacy. Since it has long since been made clear that Iran regards such talks as merely a means to stall the West while it gets closer to achieving its nuclear goal, belief in more talks with Iran is a tough sell. But Rouhani is supposed to change all that and offer President Obama a plausible option for avoiding the use of force in order to make good on his promise never to allow Iran to go nuclear.

The only problem with this formulation is that the closer you look at it him, the less moderate he sounds. Indeed, as the Times profile makes clear, for all of the bouquets being thrown in Rouhani’s direction, it’s fairly obvious that his main virtue is that he is not Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

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The foreign policy establishment found a new hero. No, it’s not Secretary of State John Kerry. Kerry is being backed by most of the talking heads even as he charts a course for disaster in the Middle East. But as much as people like Aaron David Miller and Fareed Zakaria are working hard to vouch for what even they acknowledge to be a fool’s errand, the secretary is nowhere near as popular in the press these days as Hassan Rouhani, the president-elect of Iran. Evidence of this was seen yesterday in the New York Times when it published a front-page puff piece in the form of its Saturday profile that any liberal American politician would sell his soul for. According to the Times, Rouhani is the sort of “can do” politician that can make things happen in Iran, utilizing his close ties with the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Rouhani comes across in the piece as so pragmatic and moderate that it makes you wonder how it is that relations with the Islamic Republic can be so strained with such people running Iran.

The reason for the enthusiasm in Washington and in the liberal press for Rouhani isn’t a puzzle. By portraying the man elected to the largely symbolic post of president of Iran as a man of peace, some hope to not merely defuse tensions between Iran and the West over the regime’s nuclear program but to revive support for diplomacy. Since it has long since been made clear that Iran regards such talks as merely a means to stall the West while it gets closer to achieving its nuclear goal, belief in more talks with Iran is a tough sell. But Rouhani is supposed to change all that and offer President Obama a plausible option for avoiding the use of force in order to make good on his promise never to allow Iran to go nuclear.

The only problem with this formulation is that the closer you look at it him, the less moderate he sounds. Indeed, as the Times profile makes clear, for all of the bouquets being thrown in Rouhani’s direction, it’s fairly obvious that his main virtue is that he is not Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

For eight years, Rouhani’s predecessor has been a convenient symbol of everything that is hateful about Iran’s government. Ahmadinejad’s open anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial transformed him into a cartoon character villain in the West who symbolized the extreme nature of the Iranian government. Though Rouhani’s election is seen as a rebuke to Khamenei, allowing the loopy-looking Ahmadinejad to be replaced with someone who is viewed as a moderate in the West is the smartest thing the supreme leader has done in years. As bizarre as Ahmadinejad’s rants were, he was merely the public face of a government run largely by others that embodied the same ideology he espoused.

But even the proofs offered of Rouhani’s moderation and pragmatism undermine the narrative that he offers a way out for Obama. The lead of the profile cites Rouhani’s ability to use his access to Khamenei in order to gain approval for a tentative deal that would have ended Iran’s enrichment of uranium. That was quite a feat, but as the article points out later, the achievement was meaningless. The Iranians soon reneged on their agreement in what many in Tehran admitted was part of a strategy to entice the West into talks that would help them run out the clock on their nuclear program. Agreeing to the terms that Rouhani accepted was as much a ruse as all the other deals Western diplomats thought they had reached with Iran over the years. Though the Times refloats the self-serving analysis of European diplomats that sought to vindicate their negotiating strategy in which Rouhani is depicted as an honest interlocutor who was just “too optimistic,” he was, in fact, just the star in a clever piece of theater served up by the ayatollahs.

That Rouhani is just as much if not more of a front man for Khamenei’s regime is also obvious. He was, as the Times admits, a close follower of Ayatollah Khomeini and a supporter, not a critic or opponent, of Iran’s theocratic rule. His differences with some of the powers that be in Tehran are tactical and largely aimed at improving Iran’s image in order to better fool the West, not changing its policies.

That the truth about Rouhani has nothing much to do with his image is immaterial to those who want to allow Iran’s nuclear threat to become a reality. After eight years of scaring the West with Ahmadinejad, Iran has finally caught on to the wisdom of offering it a “good cop” who can be sold as the man to talk to in order to get a nuclear deal that will absolve Obama of his promise and remove the possibility of a U.S. attack on its nuclear facilities. Doing so could gain them as much as a year or even more if they play their cards right in the coming months during which they can get even closer to the nuclear capability that will render any talk of Western action moot. No wonder those who wish to revive the talk of containment that President Obama renounced last year have made Rouhani their man of the hour.

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Are Iranians Buying Obama’s Tough Talk?

President Obama ensured himself an even warmer welcome in Israel next week by ratcheting up his rhetoric about the Iranian nuclear threat in an interview. Speaking with Israel’s Channel 2 television network, Obama did something he had never done before in more than four years of promises and threats about Iran: he gave a precise time frame about how long he thinks the West has before Tehran could realize its nuclear ambition.

The president said that U.S. intelligence believes Iran requires “over a year or so to actually develop a nuclear weapon.” That is a bit more optimistic than the red lines warnings issued by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, which first said the danger zone would be this spring and then revised the estimate to later this year. But it does make it clear that he doesn’t believe negotiations have unlimited time to succeed and, combined with the accompanying warning that the U.S. didn’t want to “cut it that close” and that all options including force remained on the table, constituted the sort of explicit warning that Tehran had never previously received.

But the question hanging over this statement, as well as the good will trip to the Jewish state that seems designed to reassure the Israelis, is whether the Iranians are buying it.

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President Obama ensured himself an even warmer welcome in Israel next week by ratcheting up his rhetoric about the Iranian nuclear threat in an interview. Speaking with Israel’s Channel 2 television network, Obama did something he had never done before in more than four years of promises and threats about Iran: he gave a precise time frame about how long he thinks the West has before Tehran could realize its nuclear ambition.

The president said that U.S. intelligence believes Iran requires “over a year or so to actually develop a nuclear weapon.” That is a bit more optimistic than the red lines warnings issued by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, which first said the danger zone would be this spring and then revised the estimate to later this year. But it does make it clear that he doesn’t believe negotiations have unlimited time to succeed and, combined with the accompanying warning that the U.S. didn’t want to “cut it that close” and that all options including force remained on the table, constituted the sort of explicit warning that Tehran had never previously received.

But the question hanging over this statement, as well as the good will trip to the Jewish state that seems designed to reassure the Israelis, is whether the Iranians are buying it.

President Obama has been promising that Iran would not get a bomb on his watch since before he was elected president. Over the course of the last four years his rhetoric on this point was consistent. But it has been undermined by a series of feckless diplomatic initiatives that seems to have convinced the ayatollahs Obama’s bark was worse than his bite. Years wasted on engagement and assembling an international coalition that could only agree on weak sanctions did more than give Tehran more time to get closer to its nuclear goal. They also emboldened the Iranians to hang tough in negotiations and to believe that the West would never make good on threats to use force to stop them.

Obama can blame no one but himself for reinforcing that Iranian conviction in recent months. He did it first by choosing a new defense secretary in Chuck Hagel who has been an opponent of the use of force against Iran. He compounded that blunder by going along with a series of concessions offered to Iran at the latest edition of the P5+1 talks, which raised the possibility that it could hold onto the nuclear program that he has vowed to shut down while eliminating some sanctions. The Iranians didn’t bite in no small measure because a decade of negotiations with the West have persuaded them that the longer they hold out the more likely they are to get their bomb.

The president’s apologists may see these two trends—tough talk about the subject aimed primarily at an Israeli audience and olive branches lobbed at the Iranians in the talks—as compatible, but they are actually working against each other. He may think that reassuring the Israelis that he has their back may win him extra time to talk to the Iranians. It is probably true that every such statement makes it more unlikely that Israel would consider acting against Iran on its own. But though the president has often acted as if his main problem was keeping the Israelis in line, what he has done is paint himself into a very uncomfortable corner.

The latest reassurance that he will act and act decisively if necessary is good news if only because it makes it that much more difficult for the administration to wiggle their way out of the president’s commitment to spike Iran’s nuclear program when push comes to shove. By establishing a timeline, Obama has taken one more step toward action that ought to get the attention of the ayatollahs and convince them they must give in. But it is unclear whether this increased resolve comes too late to alter the Iranian perception that they have all the time they need to go nuclear before the West wakes up and realizes this grave threat to their security as well as to Israel’s is imminent.

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Western Concessions Boost Iran Confidence

After two days of the latest round of P5+1 talks with Iran, the international coalition has already begun the process of standing down from a confrontational stance toward Tehran. After a decade of diplomatic failure, no one seriously expected this week’s sessions to create a breakthrough that might defuse the Iranian nuclear threat. But the West’s decision to make two key concessions to the Islamist regime without any reciprocal move on Iran’s part is likely to only reinforce its confidence that it can continue to stall until the Iranians reach their nuclear goal. The group comprised of the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany and which is led by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, dropped their previous insistence that Iran must shut down its nuclear plant at Fordo and also said that it could keep some of its 20 percent enriched uranium that could be converted to use for a weapon.

With those concessions in his pocket, and without having given anything in return at the talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan, it’s no wonder the Iranian negotiator called the meeting positive and said the Western position had become “more realistic.” American and European diplomats emphasized to reporters their three conditions to the Iranians that would hinder any attempt to create a weapon, but also said agreeing to those minimal steps would lead to the end of some of the toughest economic sanctions on the country.

All this is just one more set of signals that tells the Iranians they have no need to take seriously President Obama’s threats about force still being an option in the West’s efforts to prevent Tehran from going nuclear. In its new issue, TIME magazine details the story of the administration’s evolution toward a position that specifically eschews containment of a nuclear Iran as an option and says the administration is preparing for war. But this week’s concessions, combined with the confirmation of a new U.S. secretary of defense who was a longtime advocate of containment (and who could not articulate the administration’s current position on the issue in his confirmation hearing even when given three tries to do so), can only bolster the determination of the Iranians to hang on to their program until they run out the clock on the talks and achieve their goal.

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After two days of the latest round of P5+1 talks with Iran, the international coalition has already begun the process of standing down from a confrontational stance toward Tehran. After a decade of diplomatic failure, no one seriously expected this week’s sessions to create a breakthrough that might defuse the Iranian nuclear threat. But the West’s decision to make two key concessions to the Islamist regime without any reciprocal move on Iran’s part is likely to only reinforce its confidence that it can continue to stall until the Iranians reach their nuclear goal. The group comprised of the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany and which is led by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, dropped their previous insistence that Iran must shut down its nuclear plant at Fordo and also said that it could keep some of its 20 percent enriched uranium that could be converted to use for a weapon.

With those concessions in his pocket, and without having given anything in return at the talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan, it’s no wonder the Iranian negotiator called the meeting positive and said the Western position had become “more realistic.” American and European diplomats emphasized to reporters their three conditions to the Iranians that would hinder any attempt to create a weapon, but also said agreeing to those minimal steps would lead to the end of some of the toughest economic sanctions on the country.

All this is just one more set of signals that tells the Iranians they have no need to take seriously President Obama’s threats about force still being an option in the West’s efforts to prevent Tehran from going nuclear. In its new issue, TIME magazine details the story of the administration’s evolution toward a position that specifically eschews containment of a nuclear Iran as an option and says the administration is preparing for war. But this week’s concessions, combined with the confirmation of a new U.S. secretary of defense who was a longtime advocate of containment (and who could not articulate the administration’s current position on the issue in his confirmation hearing even when given three tries to do so), can only bolster the determination of the Iranians to hang on to their program until they run out the clock on the talks and achieve their goal.

As TIME notes, only Obama knows for sure whether he really will make good on his pledges to use every possible option, including war, to stop Iran. But the appointment of Chuck Hagel to the Pentagon was not something that was geared to make the Iranians believe the president means what he says. They are hoping to drag out the talks over time, and the promise of even more open-ended negotiations after this week could hardly have persuaded them to alter that strategy.

Indeed, the new talks repeated the patterns of past negotiations in which Western concessions were made to get a deal that would not conclusively end the nuclear threat. The current P5+1 position would leave the Iranians plenty of room to maneuver and to cheat on their promises—as the North Koreans did before they got their bomb.

The Iranians have convinced the West and even the Israelis that they have more time than they thought they had last year before it is too late to spike the nuclear program. But even if we assume that the West has until the fall or even next spring to talk the Iranians down from the nuclear ledge, nothing they have done—including tough economic sanctions—seems to have really gotten Iran to believe they have no choice but to surrender their nukes.

If President Obama wants Iran to take him seriously he needs to change his diplomatic posture, not double down on a policy of engagement that only serves to make the ayatollahs think he is a paper tiger. If he is to disabuse them of that belief, the president needs to do something in the coming months that makes clear that the U.S. is ready to strike. But with Hagel, whom Obama appears to trust, having replaced his predecessor Robert Gates as the leading proponent of containment in the administration, the odds of doing so are not good.

Even if one believes the TIME story about the president’s intentions, he needs to understand the threat of American force is only credible if the other side believes in it. After ensnaring the West in a new round of dead-end negotiations, it’s hard to blame the Iranians if they think they have nothing to worry about.  

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Down the Garden Path With Iran Again

The Iranian nuclear threat has been on the back burner in recent months, as first the United States and now Israel have been distracted by elections. But the reported comments of Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator during a visit to India about Tehran’s interest in another round of talks with the West are sure to revive the hopes of those who believe in the existence of a “window of diplomacy” to resolve the issue.

But the question to be asked about this is not so much whether there will be more talks but whether both the Iranians and their Western negotiating partners have the same motive for continuing what can only be described as the charade of a diplomatic process. If President Obama is prepared to engage in a repeat of last year’s P5+1 fiasco that took up the better part of a year doing nothing but allowing the Iranians to get that much closer to their nuclear goal, then it will be difficult to argue that he is not doing the same thing as the Iranians: stalling until it is too late to do anything about an Iranian bomb.

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The Iranian nuclear threat has been on the back burner in recent months, as first the United States and now Israel have been distracted by elections. But the reported comments of Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator during a visit to India about Tehran’s interest in another round of talks with the West are sure to revive the hopes of those who believe in the existence of a “window of diplomacy” to resolve the issue.

But the question to be asked about this is not so much whether there will be more talks but whether both the Iranians and their Western negotiating partners have the same motive for continuing what can only be described as the charade of a diplomatic process. If President Obama is prepared to engage in a repeat of last year’s P5+1 fiasco that took up the better part of a year doing nothing but allowing the Iranians to get that much closer to their nuclear goal, then it will be difficult to argue that he is not doing the same thing as the Iranians: stalling until it is too late to do anything about an Iranian bomb.

The Iranian motive for their attempt to lure the U.S. and the other members of the P5+1 group back into another round of negotiations is obvious. Having some sort of diplomatic process in place no matter how hopeless its prospects is the only way to ensure that they are not attacked by Israel next spring and summer. It is also their only path toward persuading the international community to loosen up enforcement of the economic sanctions that have been hurting the Iranian economy and to stop the enactment of even more stringent measures against them. They want to do what they have been doing since the middle of the George W. Bush administration: run out the clock on the West while their nuclear program gets closer to completion.

The motives of the Obama administration and the rest of the P5+1 club are ostensibly very different. Some in Washington may still think the ayatollahs can be talked out of their nuclear ambitions. Others may believe that the sanctions that are making life difficult for ordinary Iranians may eventually force the regime to bend.

But after so many trips down the diplomatic garden path with the Iranians, it is hard to believe that the Obama administration is foolish enough to think another tête-à-tête or two with Tehran’s representatives will accomplish what eight years of dead-end talks didn’t do.

Were the West to step up the sanctions against Iran and tighten the noose on its economy to the point where the country’s oil exports were completely shut down, there might be a theoretical chance of success. But there are few signs that the president is interested in doing that and little chance that he could get the Russians and the Chinese to go along even if he did want to get tougher. Though the current restrictions on commerce with Iran have inflicted much pain, enforcement has been sporadic and there is no sign that the resolve of the Islamist regime has been even slightly affected.

The West will continue to engage in talks they know won’t succeed in no small measure because the alternatives–more sanctions and credible threats of the use of force–don’t appear to be in the cards. Until that changes, the Iranians are probably right to think all they have to do is to wait them out.

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