The Moderation Fallacy in Iran

by Robert Joseph
The president has new excuses to restart negotiations and relieve pressure.

The United States and its European partners have a long record of anticipating diplomatic breakthroughs when a new leader comes to power in a hostile state.

Remember Yuri Andropov, the former KGB boss who rose to power at the height of the Cold War? Never mind the central role he had in crushing democratic uprisings in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, or his brutal repression of domestic dissidents through such innovative techniques as widescale incarcerations in “psychiatric hospitals.” Upon his assuming the position of general secretary, Western leaders were quick to note that he was known to listen to Glenn Miller and drink Scotch. Presumably on that basis, he was described as “a man we can do business with.” It was only the downing of  a South Korean airliner by Soviet fighters, killing 269 passengers and crew, that brought an end to the illusion that Andropov would usher in an era of cooperation.

This greeting of new leaders in authoritarian states as harbingers of positive outcomes continues today. When Kim Jong Un assumed power in North Korea, there was optimism all around that the West’s desire for engagement would be reciprocated. After all, he had studied in Switzerland as a young boy. But within a few months, reality once again reared its ugly head. Pyongyang launched a long-range missile, tested a nuclear device, and threatened a preemptive attack on the United States.

Today, we see the same dynamic at work with Iran, and it could undermine any remaining prospects for a diplomatic solution. Hassan Rowhani, the new president, has been widely described as a “moderate” or “relative moderate” whose election represents an “opportunity” to bring an end to Iran’s nuclear-weapons program. He is the “diplomat sheikh” — a “pragmatist” who will negotiate meaningful constraints on Iran’s nuclear activities and permit greater transparency about them.

But this speculation has no factual basis. Rowhani, despite his comforting words (designed for foreign consumption), is the consummate regime insider. His loyalty to the Supreme Leader is unquestionable — not least because he was one of only eight candidates whom the regime selected to participate in the election. He is known for his hardline positions on both the domestic- and foreign-policy fronts.

Rowhani served for 16 years as secretary of the country’s National Security Council and headed the initial nuclear negotiations with the Europeans. He later publicly boasted that he fooled his negotiating partners, feigning restraint and moderation while the program expanded. And we are hearing the same words of moderation from him today.

Nonetheless, the Obama administration is eagerly preparing for bilateral talks and has signaled its desire to at least delay additional congressional sanctions. A variant of this same approach was adopted by the Bush administration with North Korea in 2007 and 2008, when the U.S. eliminated a series of financial and political sanctions on the regime and received nothing but duplicity in return. The same outcome is inevitable if this path is followed with Iran.

It’s certainly preferable to end Iran’s nuclear program diplomatically. But pursuing diplomacy by relieving, instead of increasing, pressure will undercut any chance of diplomacy succeeding. So why does President Obama continue such a feckless pursuit? Four interrelated factors provide the best explanation.

Mirror imaging: Rowhani comes across as a man with whom we can do business because he speaks the words that the Obama administration wants to hear. He was educated in Scotland; he possesses diplomatic skills; he talks about creating jobs and putting Iran’s economy back on track via international trade; he emphasizes the peaceful intent of Iran’s nuclear program and has personally called for “serious” talks on the nuclear issue. In other words, unlike his predecessor, he is articulate and knows exactly what the West desires. To many, his words are seen to reflect a rational and moderate bearing. In fact, they reflect a cunning that has long been his personal trademark.

Despite the polish, Rowhani’s record is one of complicity in repressing human rights, suppressing student dissent, and exporting terrorism. Given the atrocities over more than three decades of the Ayatollah’s regime, and Rowhani’s longstanding leadership role in it, he undoubtedly sees the world differently than we do. Sharing our views, let alone our values, and playing a prominent role in support of the theocracy in Iran are mutually exclusive conditions.

Drinking one’s own bathwater: Media reports around the globe, numbering in the hundreds if not thousands, have declared Rowhani to be a moderate whose priority is fixing the economy. This, according to numerous sources, requires relief from the sanctions that have been imposed on Iran for its nuclear activities. The bottom line is clear — whether it’s NBC News, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, or another mainstream outlet: Iran is now ready to negotiate, and presumably is reevaluating its nuclear ambitions. But little if anything has changed on the ground in Iran. The uranium and plutonium programs continue to grow, as does the stiff-arming of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors over alarming developments related to possible weaponization. A soon-to-be-released IAEA report will likely confirm Tehran’s continued intransigence — something that media reports will almost surely attribute to Iran’s previous leader so as not to cast doubt on future negotiations.

Equating negotiation with compromise: For the Obama team, to negotiate is to compromise. And compromise is believed to be the best approach to secure success, no matter how one-sided the result — as seen in recent arms-control negotiations with Russia. With Iran, American negotiators have reportedly offered substantial concessions as a starting position, focusing not on the suspension of all enrichment, as demanded by numerous U.N. Security Council resolutions, but rather on enrichment beyond 20 percent. Iranian leaders have a much different understanding of the goal of negotiation: securing national objectives while avoiding any meaningful concessions. For them, compromise is seen not as a means to an end or an end in itself, but as a weakness to avoid.

Avoiding hard choices: With Iran, there are no easy policy options. At one end of the spectrum, the use of force would entail substantial political, economic, and military consequences. At the other end, a nuclear-armed Iran would have profound implications for U.S. interests in the region and could well unravel the global nuclear-nonproliferation regime. Promoting regime change through the support of the opposition inside and outside of Iran, the only path to achieve U.S. security objectives, is shunned by the president, who stood idly by in 2009 as security forces brutally repressed the protests that followed the sham election of Ahmadinejad.

For the time being, pursuing engagement and negotiations has permitted the Obama administration to avoid the other, more difficult options. But there is no painless path to ending Iran’s nuclear quest. Tehran has used diplomacy more effectively than the West. Negotiation has not merely failed to slow the growth of the program; it has been used by Iran to buy time to expand the program at an accelerating pace.

Most observers agree that time for negotiations is running out. Yet President Obama appears to believe, or at least hope, that this time negotiations will produce a positive result. Many reasons are offered for this optimism: the deterioration of Iran’s economy, internal fissures within the ruling elite, and, most recently, the installment of a more moderate leader. But without a realistic assessment of the goals and motives of Iran’s leaders, there is no chance for diplomacy to succeed. Relieving pressure will only encourage Tehran to delay taking any significant steps to curtail the nuclear program.

While Obama-administration officials often talk about applying the “right balance of carrots and sticks,” once negotiations seem near with Iran, the emphasis is always on carrots. This betrays precisely the wrong instincts.

— Robert Joseph is a former undersecretary of state for arms control and international security.