Commentary Magazine


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.

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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