Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Looking beyond Rouhani's charm offensive

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Since Iranian President Hassan Rouhani came to power in June, he has led a charm offensive aimed at breaking the coordinated Western front of sanctions and diplomatic isolation designed to halt Iran's clandestine nuclear program - which the International Atomic Energy Agency and others believe appears geared towards developing nuclear weapons capability.

Many western commentators appear relieved that Rouhani is considered a ‘moderate' in Iran.  They are pleased that Rouhani has distanced himself from the Holocaust denial of his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and greeted his speech to the UN General Assembly where he stated that Iran is not interested in nuclear weapons, as well as his phone conversation with US President Obama with unalloyed enthusiasm.

This charm offensive has been so successful that online readers of the Guardian voted Rouhani as most deserving to be awarded this year's Nobel Peace Prize, leading with a staggering 76 percent of the vote as of Thursday. Trailing behind with 15 percent of the vote is the deserving Pakistani political and social activist Malala Yousafzai who advocates for the education of girls, and who survived being shot by the Taliban.

While a diplomatic and peaceful agreement regarding Iran's nuclear program would certainly be welcome, there are some significant problems with Rouhani's overtures - namely that there is currently very little evidence that Rouhani's charm offensive means Iran is amenable to an acceptable deal on its nuclear program, and a considerable amount of evidence suggesting the opposite. This point was the key message of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech to the UN General Assembly, which was largely overlooked by much of the media. Netanyahu said:

"You know why Rohani thinks he can get away with this?... Because - because he's gotten away with it before, because his strategy of talking a lot and doing little has worked for him in the past...
He even brags about this. Here's what he said in his 2011 book about his time as Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, and I quote: ‘While we were talking to the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in Isfahan.'
Now, for those of you who don't know, the Isfahan facility is an indispensable part of Iran's nuclear weapons program. That's where uranium ore called yellowcake is converted into an enrichable form. Rohani boasted, and I quote, ‘By creating a calm environment - a calm environment - we were able to complete the work in Isfahan.' He fooled the world once. Now he thinks he can fool it again."

Similarly, Jeffrey Goldberg noted in Bloomberg that in an interview in May Rouhani said he was proud of his work to advance Iran's nuclear program:

"... in May, shortly before he was elected, Rouhani appeared on state-run IRIB TV to defend his nuclear work, appearing defensive as a hard-line interviewer essentially accused him of bowing before the West. We may one day thank the interviewer, Hassan Abedini, for pushing Rouhani on the subject. According to an account of the conversation published in the Times of Israel, Rouhani at one point became flustered by the insinuation that, as Iran's chief nuclear negotiator 10 years ago, he kowtowed to the West by bringing his country's nuclear activities to a stop.
‘We halted the nuclear program?' he asked, rhetorically. ‘We were the ones to complete it! We completed the technology.'
Abedini pushed Rouhani harder, claiming that uranium enrichment at a facility in Isfahan had been suspended while Rouhani was in charge. Rouhani denied the accusation, and then claimed credit for the development of a heavy-water reactor in Arak in 2004.
‘Do you know when we developed yellowcake? Winter 2004. Do you know when the number of centrifuges reached 3,000? Winter 2004.'
... Taken together, Rouhani's statements sound like those of a man who is proud of the program and believes he may have devised a way to carry it to completion: By speaking softly, smiling and spinning the centrifuges all the while."

Perhaps, the Nobel Peace Prize award - or even a fake nomination - should wait until Rouhani has proven his ability to act on his words. For even if Rouhani is willing to act, he may be limited by Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is reportedly unhappy with his recent advances to the West.

Iranian daily Kayhan, a conservative, hard-line newspaper reported that Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Tuesday that Khamenei had pointed at some "missteps" during the Iranian delegation's visit to the UN General Assembly in New York last month, specifically Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's phone conversation with US President Obama, and Zarif's own meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry. The Times of Israel reported:

"According to the report, Zarif was questioned Sunday by the government's National Security and Foreign Policy Commission after Khamenei criticized the delegation's actions.
‘We [Zarif and Rouhani] thought that the talks [with Kerry] and the phone call [with Obama] were within the authority given to us,' the Iranian newspaper quoted Zarif as saying.
‘But, it is our understanding that [Khamenei] has criticized us for Dr. Rouhani's phone conversation with Obama - he regards that as the first misstep - and my long meeting with John Kerry, which he regards as the other misstep during our trip,' Zarif reportedly added.'
... On Saturday, Khamenei said "some" aspects of Rouhani's trip to the United Nations General Assembly were "not proper." Khamenei also slammed the US as arrogant, dishonest, untrustworthy, and controlled by Zionists..."

Zarif now claims that he was misquoted by Kayhan, but Kayhan has defended its account of the story. Meanwhile, Mohammad Ali Jafari, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, has also said Rouhani went too far in reaching out to Washington calling the phone call to Obama a "tactical mistake."

In any case, according to an official Iranian policy document Rouhani's charm offensive appears to be part of a campaign to sideline the US by isolating it from the other members of the P5+1 (Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China) - which is very much in line with how Rouhani has described his own past efforts to use negotiations as a cover to continue making nuclear progress. As Steven Ditto from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy explains:

"On August 7, four days after the new president's inauguration, Zarif released the ‘Program for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for a Rouhani Government' to Iranian media outlets. Shortly thereafter, the document appeared on the Foreign Ministry website (see <;siteid=1&amp;pageid=128&amp;newsview=5843> ).

In it, Zarif enumerated the ministry's ‘short-medium-term operational strategy' for nuclear negotiations, including a pledge to ‘change the global security environment' by ‘breaking the coordination of major powers and neutralizing the Zionist-American efforts to build an international consensus against Iran.' He reiterated this point two more times, noting that ‘global conditions' called for a strategy to ‘neutralize the leverage of America and the Zionist regime with countries and multilateral institutions vis-a-vis Iran...

A survey of Rouhani's books and academic articles published over the past decade similarly reveals a strategy of creating exploitable divisions within the international coalition. In a December 2003 article published two months into negotiations with the EU-3 (i.e., Britain, France, and Germany), he wrote that a ‘foundational principle' in ‘Iran's relations with the United States" is to "prevent compatibility and consensus between America and other world powers -- especially Europe, Russia, and China -- over Iran.'"

This strategy already appears to be working, as Ditto notes:

"Since his inauguration, Rouhani has met with four of the six P5+1 leaders and shown signs of driving a wedge between the EU and Washington's strategic outlooks. On the sidelines of the latest UN General Assembly session, he met with the leaders of five European countries: France, Italy, Spain, Austria, and Germany. This was in addition to meetings with Russia and China at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Kyrgyzstan two weeks prior.

Press reports from the UN session indicate a growing European amenability to Rouhani's diplomatic charm offensive. For instance, German chancellor Angela Merkel praised Tehran's role in ‘mediating' a diplomatic solution in Syria. Rouhani's growing clout was especially manifested in his exchange with Italian prime minister Enrico Letta, who publicly lamented that Italy had no role in the P5+1 despite being a ‘bridge between Iran and the West.'"

In addition, the UK has said that it is taking steps towards possible restoration of diplomatic ties with Iran. The US has also said that it is "ready to talk... ready to listen" with Iran, according to Rose Gottemoeller, the US assistant secretary of state for arms control.

Gottemoeller spoke to the committee hours after an Israeli TV report had claimed that Iran and the US have secretly made "significant progress" toward an agreement that would aim to keep Iran "two or three years away" from a nuclear weapons capability, and would see an easing of economic sanctions on Iran. The TV report came a day after Prime Minister Netanyahu warned against "a bad deal" being done with Iran, under which sanctions were eased but Iran was left with the capacity to enrich uranium and/or pursue a plutonium route to a nuclear weapon.

Similarly, in Aaron David Miller's article "Advantage: Iran" in Foreign Policy, he writes that it is unclear what game Iran is playing, and provides sobering analysis on the current predicament:

"U.S. presidents and government negotiators measure their lives in four- and eight-year increments -- that is, the terms of administrations. Iran, by contrast, plays the long game, the generational game. Sure, Iran wants sanctions relief. But it can wait if it doesn't get exactly what it wants.

In addition to the limited time frame of his second term, Obama is up against two clocks that are ticking down to a place he'd rather not be: a military option. First, there's the clock showing that Iran is nearing the point of no return -- the much-feared breakout capacity. That, in turn, influences the second clock: Israel's own timeline for making the agonizing decision about its military options.

In a way, too, the Rouhani charm offensive may have accelerated matters for Washington. By elevating the level of negotiations -- opening new channels to both the U.S. president and the secretary of state -- it will be harder, not easier, for the United States to drag things out. Before, in the P5+1 talks in Almaty, Istanbul, and Moscow, we were on mullah time; now, we're on fast-tracked Washington time. After all, once the president at the U.N. General Assembly, in front of the whole world, directs his secretary of state to manage negotiations, it's hard to go back to business as usual.

Maybe the moment of decision is coming. Maybe not. If negotiations really are serious and a deal, however imperfect, is in sight, time will be less of a U.S. concern going forward than it is now. If things don't go well at the table, however, then at some point it will be time to stop pretending that negotiations can answer the mail -- and to acknowledge how Iran's generational game could play out.

Iran doesn't want an Israeli strike, let alone a U.S. one. But it may well calculate that, if it doesn't stick a nuclear weapons program in President Obama's eye, the United States won't strike. As for the Israelis, the mullahs may well take their chances and wager that the temporary setback to their nuclear program would be outweighed by the political benefits they might gain from an Israeli strike.

It's a roll of the dice. But Iran, with all its advantages over the United States and its allies, just might take the risk. Indeed, the message from Tehran might be: Come and get us. And, by the way, welcome to the neighborhood."

Sharyn Mittelman


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