With starry-eyed optimism, Western leaders and members of the media have recently fawned all over the new Iranian president, Hasan Rouhani, as if he had taken any meaningful steps to reverse Iran’s illicit nuclear program, abysmal human rights abuses, or support for Hezbollah terrorism and Basher Assad’s murderous regime in Syria. Rouhani can thank his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for being so repugnant that virtually anyone succeeding him would be welcomed with relief. But the West’s premature exuberance over Rouhani undermines efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions and dangerously signals to rogue states that a few weeks of charm can quickly compensate for decades of terrorism, genocidal incitement, and human rights abuses.
On the core issues, Iran’s behavior is the same, but with a more PR-savvy face. Rouhani has continued Iran’s support for the Syrian regime and Iran’s anti-Israel rhetoric and policies. About a month into Rouhani’s term, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) declared that Iran’s nuclear program includes “strong indicators of possible nuclear weapon development.” The program includes developing plutonium-based capabilities for building nukes, installing advanced uranium enrichment equipment that enables Iran quickly to weaponize its nuclear materials without detection by IAEA inspections, enriching uranium in defiance of UN Security Council and IAEA resolutions, and developing nuclear warheads and the missiles to deliver them.
These facts completely discredit Rouhani’s repeated claims that Iran’s nuclear program exists only for “peaceful” purposes. His boasts about playing for time (in a 2004 speech) when he served as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator further undermine his credibility on this issue (in his words: “While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the [nuclear conversion] facility in Isfahan”). Moreover, Iran has consistently deceived the international community about its nuclear activities, like when the Islamic Republic concealed its nuclear facility in Qom (which was uncovered by Western intelligence agencies).
But these facts don’t seem to matter because when Rouhani repeatedly drops the word “peace” in his speeches, Western media and diplomats swoon. “At the cost of thoughtful reporting” (as media watchdog CAMERA aptly summarized), Western media have also fallen for the “Twitter charms” reportedly sent by members of the Iranian regime.
And this same naive crowd celebrates the release of 80 Iranian political prisoners — timed for maximum PR effect — while forgetting that Iran has executed more than 170 political prisoners since Rouhani’s election and continues to imprison close to 800 (including U.S. citizen and former Marine Amir Hekmati, despite requests to release him from top U.S. officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry). Indeed, a web site documenting Iran’s human rights abuses confirms that — under Rouhani’s rule — it’s very much business as usual in Iran, with public hangings, religious persecution, abuse of women, arbitrary arrests, and suppression of dissent. But why spoil the party with such details when Rouhani speechifies about “peace” and “friendship?”
Desperate for a sign of progress, delusional optimists point out that Rouhani hasn’t actively denied the Holocaust. That this could be considered a sign of Iranian “progress” shows just how pathetically low the bar has dropped (thanks, again, to Ahmadinejad’s fine work). But even by this measure, Rouhani just looks more sophisticated (opting to say that “he’s not a historian” instead of unequivocally denying the Holocaust). One Iran expert explained Rouhani’s shameful response as a result of local politics, but if Rouhani’s not even free to acknowledge a historical fact, how can he possibly change Iran’s nuclear policy? Rouhani may have subsequently realized that his media strategy required improving upon his initial answer, but the clarification he attempted in his recent interview with Christiane Amanpour left him plenty of room for Holocaust denial and revisionism. Equally troubling, starting around 4:00 of this video (which part was suspiciously excluded from CNN’s written interview summary), Rouhani goes on to suggest that the Jewish claim to the land of Israel is based only on the Holocaust, and — in equally twisted moral and historical logic — suggests an equivalence between the Holocaust and the Israeli “occupation” of Palestinians.
Only the credible threat of force has ever worked in stopping Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and after Obama’s feckless and spineless approach to a far weaker adversary (Syria), the Iranians have all the more reason to doubt any U.S. military threat — particularly if Obama can be stalled by a diplomatic process that seems to offer progress now that the Iranian wolf has been redressed as a sheep.
While Obama likes to boast that his economic sanctions have brought Iran to the table, the only measure of success is whether Iran is closer to a nuclear weapons capability, and on that score Obama is a complete failure: Iran has been inching closer to nukes every day that Obama has been in office.
Moreover, the dynamics of Obama’s diplomatic efforts reveal who’s actually winning: Obama asked Rouhani for a meeting at the UN, only to be rejected. So the U.S. looks like the eager party here, making it that much easier for Iran to manipulate any eventual talks in its favor. Indeed, the more the West appears desperate to welcome Rouhani’s new tune, the less Iran has to make any meaningful concessions. In this way, Ahmadinejad’s revolting persona and style made it that much easier for his successor to succeed at playing the “good cop” in any negotiations. And it is actually Iran’s hardline supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on Iranian policy, so the Rouhani theatrics are ultimately meaningless anyway. While the country’s dictator recently said that Iran can show “heroic flexibility,” he’s not actually beholden to anyone, so he can easily change his mind after buying another 6-12 months of nuclear enrichment time by “negotiating” with the West through Rouhani.
To resolve a crisis that could otherwise end up as a massive regional war in the near future, Iran must: 1) stop all nuclear enrichment, 2) dismantle the illicit underground nuclear facility near Qom and the second-generation centrifuges in Natanz, 3) remove all enriched material from Iranian territory, and 4) stop the construction of the heavy water reactor in Arak.If the international community hopes to stop Iran’s nuclear program before it’s too late, any deal with Iran must ensure that the above four steps are verifiably taken. Any lesser deal would allow Iran to continue developing nuclear weapons capabilities behind a smokescreen of promises, as the North Koreans have done. Will the West be charmed all the way to Armageddon?
Noah Beck is the author of The Last Israelis, an apocalyptic novel about Iranian nukes and other geopolitical issues in the Middle East.