Commentary Magazine


Rouhani Spikes the Ball in Obama’s Face

President Obama and his allies are working overtime this week to lobby the Senate against passage of a new round of tough sanctions on Iran. The conceit of his campaign to persuade Congress not to give him more leverage over Tehran is that even the threat of further economic pressure on the regime would cause it to scuttle more nuclear talks. According to the administration, any further sanctions would “break faith” with a country that Obama wants to do business with on the nuclear question as well as on the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.

But while the president is bending over backward trying to avoid giving offense to his diplomatic dance partners, the Iranians have a very different mindset. Rather than displaying the skittish fear of blowing up the talks the president is displaying, the Iranians are spending the days after the finalization of the interim deal signed in November spiking the football in Obama’s face. That’s the only way to interpret the tweet put out this morning by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, the so-called moderate whose victory in a faux election last summer was seen by the administration as a sign Iran was changing for the better, in which he said:

Our relationship with the world is based on Iranian nation’s interests. In #Geneva agreement world powers surrendered to Iranian nation’s will.

While such gloating is unseemly even for a functionary of a tyrannical regime, given the terms of the deal and the publicly stated fears of the president that Iran might flee the talks if the Senate did anything to offend them, it’s hard to argue with Rouhani’s assessment of the situation. The president and Secretary of State Kerry have represented the nuclear deal as a victory for the West since it supposedly hits the pause button on the Iranian program while maintaining almost all of the economic sanctions that brought Tehran to the negotiating table in the first place. But the Iranians, buoyed by a resurgent economy, have a very different perspective on the accord. The willingness of Iran’s leaders—both the so-called “moderates” and their “hard-line” opponents—to characterize the agreement as a triumph for Iran’s foreign-policy goals as well as its nuclear ambition makes the administration’s fear of offending them look ridiculous, not to mention downright craven.

 As the New York Times reports, the “hardliners” who are reportedly working to undermine Rouhani are actually quite pleased with what their country’s negotiators achieved in Geneva. Conservative clerics in Iran’s parliament are acknowledging that the deal sanctioned Iran’s continuing enrichment of uranium, thereby upending years of United Nations resolutions attempting to stop the practice. They also know that, despite the downplaying of these gifts by Kerry, their country received significant relief from sanctions that will make it far easier for the regime to continuing selling oil. That will keep their government afloat as well as finance Iran’s nuclear project, its interventions in Syria and Iraq, and its support of international terrorism.

What’s more, far from displaying any worry about the U.S. withdrawing these benefits, Iran’s leaders also seem to think now is a good time to rub the Americans’ faces in their disgrace. Rouhani’s foreign minister, Mohamad Javid Zarif, who was shaking hands with Kerry in Geneva in November, yesterday took time out to lay a wreath at the grave of the man who planned the terrorist attack on the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 as well as other crimes against Americans. As reported, Zarif paid homage to Hezbollah’s Imad Mughniyeh in Lebanon yesterday, making clear that the new moderate government maintains the same policy priorities as the hardliners.

Of course, the revelation that the secret diplomatic back-channel talks that led to the November deal began before Rouhani’s election last summer gave the lie to the notion that the renewed talks were the result of changes on Iran’s part rather than Obama’s decision to give Tehran what it wanted. But as Elliott Abrams noted today at Pressure Points, the juxtaposition between the administration’s weakness and Iran’s chutzpah bodes ill for the next round of nuclear talks.

The Iranians have always acted as if they thought Obama was a weakling, but their brazen behavior this week demonstrates again that they think there is nothing they can do or say that could possibly provoke a reaction from Washington. While the president pulls out all the stops to prevent even the threat of future sanctions—the proposal being considered by the Senate would not go into effect until after the next round of talks fails—the Iranians are showing they will agree to nothing that will thwart their nuclear ambitions and think Obama won’t lift a finger to stop them.

Rather than bolstering the president’s effort to stop the sanctions bill, Rouhani’s tweet, Zarif’s photo op, and the general applause for the deal being sounded by Iran’s theocrats should convince the Senate to pass the sanctions bill. While Iran is unlikely to halt its  nuclear program under any circumstances, any slim hope of diplomatic success rests on a credible threat of U.S. pressure on the regime. Far from sparking conflict, the sanctions bill may be the only hope Washington has of influencing the Iranians to turn back before it’s too late.

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