Gaziantep, Turkey — The Obama administration’s overtures to the new president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, recall the great Middle East historian Bernard Lewis’s story about Turkey and NATO. Lewis wrote in his book Notes on a Century that someone asked a Turkish general about his country joining NATO. The Turkish general responded, “The real problem with having the Americans as your allies is you never know when they will turn around and stab themselves in the back.”
The anecdote applies to Obama’s retreat in Syria and his decision to sub-contract a large chunk of his Middle East policy to Putin. Many U.S. allies in the Middle East would—privately—concur with the Turkish general about Obama’s drift away from his allies—Jordan, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the other Gulf countries.
The Obama administration’s willingness to entertain Iran’s regime as an honest negotiating partner is raising alarm bells in the Sunni Gulf monarchies and in Israel. To be fair, Obama’s national-security spokesman Ben Rhodes said last week, “We’ve always made clear that we’ll make judgments based on the actions of the Iranian government not just on their words.”
But in light of the Obama administration’s erratic foreign-policy conduct toward Syria—and his desire to avoid force at all costs — can one reasonably expect Obama to influence a massive change in the radical mullah regime?
There has been no shortage of efforts by Western commentators to turn Iran’s new president Hassan Rouhani, who will be at the U.N. this week, into a sophisticated cosmopolitan leader who is a bridge-builder.
“I’m committed to fulfilling my promises to my people, including my pledge to engage in constructive interaction with the world,” wrote Rouhani in the Washington Post.
Sadly, his op-ed has been taken at face value and his long track record of violent suppression has been ignored. It is worth recalling that this is the same Rouhani who played a key role in the violent crackdown of Iranian student protests in 1999. He carried out his regime’s orders with pleasure to “crush mercilessly and monumentally” the student demonstrations.
Moreover, Rouhani as the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council for 16 years famously boasted about using divide-and-conquer tactics against the West to buy time to advance Iran’s illicit nuclear-weapons program.
Efforts to normalize a regime in Tehran are misguided. The real decision-maker is Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And Rouhani remains part of his inner circle that supports hardcore misogyny, the imprisonment of Iranian Christians and Bahai, and financial and military support for the fiercely anti-American Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah.
Will Obama pay attention to Gary Samore, his former adviser on weapons of mass destruction, who said of Rouhani, “Charm alone is insufficient to achieve the kind of sanctions relief they’re looking for.” Obama should use the opportunity to flex his muscles, along with his EU and Gulf allies, and impose a full embargo on Iran to potentially stop its nuclear-weapons program and human-rights violations.
Given Iran’s fast-moving effort to become a nuclear-weapons power, unsuccessful diplomatic outreach could mean—to paraphrase the Turkish general — the ultimate stab in one’s own back.
— Benjamin Weinthal is fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow Benjamin on Twitter @BenWeinthal.