New Iranian President Hassan Rowhani is already proving the truth of my assertion that allowing his election was the smartest thing his country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has done in a long time. Speaking for the first time since winning in a landslide last Friday, Rowhani presented a far more reasonable face to the world than his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Islamist cleric that had the distinction of being the most “moderate” of the regime supporters that Khamenei allowed to run said he wanted to reduce tensions with the United States. Though he reiterated that he would never budge from defending Iran’s “right” to continue to enrich uranium that the world rightly fears will be used to make bombs, this half-hearted olive branch is probably all he thinks he needs to do to string the West along for another round of negotiations that will do nothing but buy more time for Iran to achieve its nuclear ambition.
The bad news is that he’s probably right about that.
The willingness of White House chief of staff Dennis McDonough to embrace Rowhani’s election as “a potentially hopeful sign” was a signal that President Obama is ready to head down the garden path with the Iranians again despite the fact that every previous such effort has ended in a failure that only advanced the ayatollahs toward their nuclear goal. As our Max Boot noted earlier today, the “myth of the moderate mullah” dies hard in Washington. But the problem here probably goes a lot deeper than the nonsense being spouted on cable news shows about the nonexistent chances that Rowhani represents the start of a chance to transform Iran from an Islamist tyranny to something less awful. Given the fact that everyone knows that real power resides in the hands of the supreme leader, the desire to pump meaning into his election may be more about the desire of the president and those elements of the foreign policy establishment that are keen to avoid having to face up to the truth about the Iranian nuclear peril than any belief in Rowhani’s moderation.
Many of the leading strategists on Iran from Mr. Obama’s first term have become increasingly critical of the president’s handling of the issue this year. Early optimism that Iranian negotiators were ready to discuss the outlines of a deal — one that would have frozen the most immediately worrisome elements of the country’s nuclear program in return for an acknowledgment of the country’s right to enrich uranium under a highly obtrusive inspection regimen — faded in April, when the talks collapsed.
But Mr. Obama chose, after some internal debate, not to allow the breakdown in talks to become a crisis, partly because he was immersed in the debate over American intervention in the Syrian civil war. “There were a lot of distractions,” said one former senior official who remains involved in the internal debates.
The implication of the outcome of this internal White House debate is deeply troubling and ought to chasten those of the president’s defenders who continue to insist that Obama will in the end do the right thing and stop Iran from going nuclear even if that means using force. The point is, if everyone in the administration already knows that what happened last Friday was, as Jeffrey Goldberg (one of those who have vouched for Obama’s policy on Iran as aimed at stopping their nuclear program) called it, a “fake election in a fake democracy,” then the willingness of his new foreign policy team to treat Rowhani’s victory as an excuse for more diplomacy stems more from a desire to avoid making a choice about taking action than it does about any actual confidence that more talks will succeed.
It should be conceded that there has never been anything wrong with the president’s rhetoric about stopping Iran. He has been consistent on that point since he was first running for president in 2008. Having wasted much of his first term on a feckless policy of engagement with an Iranian regime that wanted no part of such outreach and the rest of it on assembling a shaky international coalition on behalf of sanctions and failed diplomacy, the president has left himself very little wriggle room. His own experience, let alone that of his predecessors, shows that any further talks will only serve Iran’s interests in that they will help run out the clock until their bomb is finished. Rowhani has bragged about playing this game with representatives of the Europeans and the George W. Bush administration. If the president is to embrace Rowhani’s minimalist olive branch as an excuse for more diplomacy it can only mean that Obama is seizing any excuse to put off the inevitable moment of truth about whether he will keep his word on Iran.
The only question about Obama’s openness to using Rowhani as a pretext for more talks is whether they will treat it as the final opportunity for Iran to stand down or as the starting point of an administration walk-back on the nuclear issue that will end with a policy of containment. True believers in Obama will, no doubt, claim it is the former, but everything we’ve seen in the last four and a half years makes it hard to believe it is anything but the latter.