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

Hassan Rouhani


Clifford D. May

The congressmen advise the White House that “it would be a mistake not to test whether Dr. Rouhani’s election represents a real opportunity for progress toward a verifiable, enforceable agreement on Iran’s nuclear program that ensures the country does not acquire a nuclear weapon.” Quite right, but, perversely, no test of Rouhani is then proposed. What they recommend instead is more like a test of the United States. Washington, they say, must be “careful not to preempt this potential opportunity by engaging in actions that delegitimize the newly elected president and weaken his standing relative to hardliners within the regime.”

How in heaven’s name would it “delegitimize” Rouhani if American negotiators were to make clear that he’ll be judged by his actions, not his rhetoric, and that the offers we’ve put on the table — most recently during negotiations in Kazakhstan in the spring — will remain on the table, but will be neither weakened nor sweetened in exchange for his smile?


Is it so difficult to comprehend that if we backpedal now, signaling our eagerness to appease, Rouhani will say to the hardliners: “You see how simple this can be? Do you finally understand why it is more effective to attract flies with baklava than with vinegar? And do you further grasp that, when you do it my way, the flies become calm and easier to swat at a time of our choosing?”

If last week’s letter is bad advice, what should the congressmen be telling Obama instead? To stay on track — as they should be, too. Of the 131 signers of the letter, 86 also are cosponsors of legislation authored by Ed Royce and Eliot Engel, the top Republican and Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, establishing a de facto oil embargo against Iran as well as a significant reduction in non-humanitarian commercial trade.

The impact of sanctions is hard to gauge with precision because Tehran conceals basic economic facts. For example: If the current level of Iran’s accessible foreign-exchange reserves is north of $100 billion, the regime can soldier on for a long time. If, however, as some analysts believe, the Iranians have only $20–30 billion in their coffers with a rapid rate of depletion, they could be facing imminent economic collapse.

Rouhani will have more influence on the Supreme Leader — not less — if he can warn that an oil embargo is coming and will hit Iran hard. After that, as economist Nouriel Roubini and FDD analyst John Hannah recently wrote, “Time is running out on peaceful options to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.”

Rouhani needs to be convinced that force is a credible option. Remember that in 2004, he did persuade the Supreme Leader to temporarily suspend uranium enrichment in response to American soldiers’ pulling Saddam Hussein out of a spider hole in neighboring Iraq.

In the coming months (not years), American leaders will have to decide whether on their watch the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism, a self-proclaimed revolutionary jihadist regime that calls America “Satan incarnate,” will be permitted to acquire the nuclear weapons it needs to dominate the Middle East and reshape the world order.

How wonderful it would be if, within Iran’s ruling elite, there were a moderate eager to avoid this confrontation and establish amicable relations. But that is not reality. If wishes were horses, 131 members of Congress would be galloping down Pennsylvania Avenue this week. It’s their job to dismount and plant their feet firmly on the ground.

— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security.



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