Hasan Rouhani, Iran’s new president, is going to be in New York this week, and the dips and pundits are very excited. They think there’s a chance for a breakthrough, maybe even two or three breakthroughs:
● A deal on the Iranian nuclear weapons program;
● Progress on the Syrian deal;
● A great leap forward in American-Iranian “relations.”
The last would produce some sort of “normalization,” involving an exchange of diplomatic representations, at a maximum the restoration of full relations for the first time since the seizure of American hostages in Tehran in the early months of the Islamic Revolution. Even a “chance encounter” between Rouhani and Obama will be treated as a major event, and you can expect to read language like “for the first time in decades, American and Iranian leaders met face to face.”
That language is false. There have been myriad face-to-face encounters, and other claims about Rouhani are also false. A recent puff piece in the New York Times summed up the conventional wisdom:
Long known as fiercely intelligent, he became renowned after the revolution for his ability to navigate a system dominated by ideologues, building consensus among many opposing forces. Those close to him describe Mr. Rouhani as the golden boy of the Islamic republic’s close-knit group of leaders and a deal maker who has had a direct hand in most of Iran’s major foreign policy decisions over the past three decades.
He was one of three Iranian officials to meet with the former national security adviser Robert McFarlane when he secretly visited Tehran in 1986 to arrange the arms-for-hostages deal that would later erupt into the Iran-contra scandal.
Golden Boy is the man of the week. But I don’t think he met McFarlane. At the time, he was an obscure clerical nothingburger. I believe that the key Iranian at the 1986 meetings was Mohammad Javad Larijani, the eldest of five very powerful brothers. And M.J. Larijani has continued to function as a back channel to the White House; I’m quite confident that he has met with high-ranking Obama officials in the Middle East and in Geneva.
I wonder if any of the journalists will ask Mr. Rouhani how he liked the key-shaped cake that McFarlane et. al. brought him…maybe they will, expecting him to come out with a witty line. They are less likely to quote one of his public statements about the United States:
“We need to express ‘Death to America’ with action. Saying it is easy.”
Nor do I expect to hear a lot about Rouhani’s self-satisfied discussion of how he tricked the West into thinking that Iran had suspended its nuclear enrichment efforts, when it was actually speeded up.
There is more. As several Iran followers have pointed out, Rouhani is not an outsider like Ahmadinejad. On the contrary, Rouhani is the ultimate insider, twice over. He’s a cleric who, so far as I can tell, is thoroughly committed to the doctrines of the Revolution. And he has spent his career inside the system, including a lengthy stint atop the Supreme National Security Council, at the right hand of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. To his credit, Thomas Erdbrink in the New York Times carefully identifies Rouhani’s core principles:
(Those close to him) caution that he is, above all, a Shiite Muslim cleric who has dedicated his life to the Islamic Revolution, which he will never betray.
In short, Rouhani seems an unlikely candidate for a man ready for a major breakthrough, unless, of course, he gets a deal so good that he can’t turn it down. What sort of deal might that be?
The short answer is: America out of the Middle East, and a quick end to unilateral sanctions. If Obama offers all that, the Iranians would surely promise to be good boys and let UN inspectors come look at (some of) the uranium enrichment sites, just as their client Bashar Assad has promised to be a good boy and let inspectors check out his chemical weapons stockpile. Like Assad, the Iranians want to buy time. Assad needs time to wipe out the opposition, and the Iranians need time to build a few atomic bombs. How much time? Some savants believe that they can have enough for a plutonium bomb in six months or so. That work is going on at Arak, which has never been available to UN inspectors. The Iranians don’t want us snooping around their military sites, even though that’s precisely what we need to snoop around.
Rouhani might also toss in the release of an American hostage or two.
As for “America out of the Middle East,” Rouhani doesn’t need to convince this administration of that; they’re already on board.
That leaves sanctions. There is no doubt the Iranian regime hates the sanctions, even though they excel at busting them and European and British courts have helped Iran no end, by nullifying many of them, especially the painful restrictions on banking. The Iranian economy is a shambles, and I can’t tell you how much is due to their own policies and how much to sanctions. But it’s a terrible mess. Inflation’s probably around seventy percent, for starters. Most municipalities are broke. Easing sanctions would help. Ergo, Rouhani’s charm offensive, wishing the Jews a happy new year, releasing a few token prisoners (a dozen or so out of more than a thousand political captives), promising a new code of civil rights, unblocking Facebook and Twitter for a few hours. It’s pretty thin gruel, but it has sure generated an amazing amount of enthusiasm.
If you want to know what’s being planned from the Iranian side, the best place to look is the conversation Rouhani had with Putin recently. There isn’t much available, because the bulk of the conversation was just the two of them and their translators. But before that private schmooze, there were others in the room, and they heard Rouhani tell Putin that Iran wouldn’t support the chemical disarmament of Syria unless Israel became a nuclear-free zone. Whatever Obama might desire, he can’t deliver that.
Finally, we will do well to remember Rouhani’s nickname: “Sheikh Fox.” You know, tricky.