Wishing for an Iranian Moderate
Hassan Rouhani is not the mullah many American politicians would like him to be.

Hassan Rouhani


Clifford D. May

There’s nothing wrong with wishful thinking — unless it gets confused with serious thinking. Policy makers and legislators have a professional responsibility to resist that temptation.

Yes, I have something in mind: a letter sent last week by 131 House members urging President Obama to “pursue the potential opportunity presented by Iran’s recent presidential election.” What “potential opportunity” is that? Hassan Rouhani, the new president-elect, they say, “campaigned on the promise to ‘pursue a policy of reconciliation and peace’ and has since promised ‘constructive interaction with the outside world.’”


Should we not expect American politicians (of all people!) to demonstrate a little skepticism when it comes to “promises” made by an Iranian politician? And how much research is required to figure out that Rouhani has said nothing even to suggest that he opposes Iran’s support for terrorism abroad (including its past attempts to blow up airplanes and restaurants in the U.S), gross violations of human rights domestically, threats of genocide against Israelis, and, of course, illegal nuclear-weapons program?

There is a lot we don’t know about Rouhani, but this much ought to be obvious: He is a political clergyman and a loyal acolyte of Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader and self-proclaimed “shadow of God upon Earth.” Were that not so, Khamenei would not permit Rouhani to become Iran’s president. Remember: There were 686 registered candidates for the last election. Only eight were allowed to run. Loyalty to the Supreme Leader and adherence to his ideology/theology were required. Khamenei also made clear to the lucky finalists that under no circumstances are they to “make concessions to the enemies.”

There are ways in which Rouhani is different from your run-of-the-mill Iranian jihadist apparatchik: He speaks our language. He studied in Scotland. He certainly has insights into the peculiar psychology of the Westerner, which may explain why, when he served as Iran’s lead nuclear negotiator a decade ago, he consistently ate the lunch of those on the other side of the table.

Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, has taken the trouble to read what Rouhani has written over the years. He tells me that Rouhani has candidly stressed that “one of the goals of his nuclear diplomacy was to create a wedge” between the United States and its European allies so that Iran could import nuclear technology without incurring Western penalties. By contrast, the antagonistic approach of Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and his nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, raised Western hackles and brought painful sanctions upon Iran.

In other words, Rouhani’s “moderation” has been stylistic, not substantive. The evidence indicates that to him “constructive interaction” means persuading the enemy to let down his guard.

Which is essentially what the congressmen are proposing — right after telling the president that Rouhani has “publicly expressed the view that obtaining a nuclear weapon would run counter to Iran’s strategic interests.”

No, actually, Rouhani has expressed the view that Iran’s strategic interests are best served not by obtaining “a” nuclear weapon but by developing an industrial-size nuclear capability to manufacture dozens of them. Achieving that requires spinning centrifuges and stocking up on enriched uranium until there is enough for “undetectable breakout” — the ability to make weapons-grade uranium (or sufficiently reprocessed plutonium) so quickly that neither U.N. inspectors nor foreign intelligence agencies are aware it’s happening.

This approach is not new. Alfoneh tells me it was spelled out by Abdollah Ramezanzadeh, a spokesman for Mohammad Khatami, Iran’s president from 1997 to 2005. Defending Khatami’s record on the nuclear portfolio in 2008, Ramezanzadeh said, “We had one overt policy, which was one of negotiation and confidence building, and a covert policy, which was continuation of the activities.” — meaning advancing toward a nuclear-weapons capability.

Ramezanzadeh concluded, “Today, in the field of confidence building, Japan is the most advanced country in the world, but Japan can produce a nuclear bomb in less than a week.” Exactly: the minute politicians give the command.


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