The Moderation Fallacy in Iran
The president has new excuses to restart negotiations and relieve pressure.

Iranian president Hassan Rowhani


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.