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.