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Iran: the Danger of Rouhani

By Michael Hirsh

National Journal

WASHINGTON -- By appeasing the West, Iran's new president may well divide it. And that would secure Tehran's nuclear program from dismantlement or attack.

In many ways, the election of Hassan Rouhani to Iran's presidency is excellent news, coming when there are so many other distractions in the region, especially the civil war in Syria. Rouhani, a moderate on foreign policy, authored the only nuclear suspension pact that Iran ever made with the West, and he has pledged to isolation-weary Iranians that he will address the sanctions that strangle their economy.

But in other ways Rouhani may prove more difficult to deal with than the president he is replacing, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. With his bilious rhetoric about Israel and the Holocaust and often erratic behavior, Ahmadinejad made Iran an easy target around which to rally tougher sanctions. The soft-spoken Rouhani, Iran's former chief nuclear negotiator, has proved skilled in the past at buying time by appearing reasonable and conciliatory, even as he, like others, has committed himself to moving ahead with uranium enrichment.

Rouhani has been frank in saying that this is his approach: In a speech in 2005, Rouhani detailed how Iran had evaded the U.N. Security Council, playing America's hardline position off against others of the five veto-bearing permanent members, including China and Russia, along with Germany. He acknowledged exploiting "the intense competition" between Western countries in nuclear negotiations, saying "we can use that competition to our advantage." At one point Rouhani described the disagreement between the U.S. and Britain over the issue as "beautiful to see."

The International Atomic Energy Agency recently concluded that Iran is speeding up its accumulation of nuclear material and installing next-generation centrifuges. Beyond that, Rouhani is a cleric who is devoted to the Islamic Republic, one reason that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei--who will still dictate policy on the "nuclear file" -- allowed him to become a presidential candidate at all. "We may very well now see a charm offensive by the Iranians, and we have to be very skeptical of it," says Nicholas Burns, a former undersecretary of State who handled Iran.

As a national-security expert, Rouhani will no doubt calculate that, with the United States newly committed to a military role in Syria, he will have a couple of big cards to play against President Obama, Israel and the West. First, with the U.S. president trying to edge his war-weary public toward limited involvement in Syria, Obama is likely to have even less taste for military conflict with Iran than he did before. Second, Rouhani knows that as a major supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces, Iran now possesses an extra degree of leverage against the United States, which has pledged military support for the Syrian rebels.

Above all, Rouhani is adept at conciliation. During the 2000s, as the U.S. joined in European-led efforts to secure a nuclear suspension deal with Tehran, the Iranians often appeared to be intent on stringing out the talks in the way the Persian Queen Scheherazade once did. Under Rouhani and other negotiators, Iran played the West somewhat as Scheherazade, their ancestral forbear in the famous fairy tale, appeased her angry husband the king for a thousand and one nights. For years they told agreeable stories of future cooperation, avoiding conclusive ultimatums, and thereby sowing self-doubt among their adversaries. Burns, who was part of that effort, insists that Rouhani was unsuccessful in the end, especially after President George W. Bush announced in February of 2005 that he would become part of what became known as the "P-5 Plus One" talks led by the European Union and consisting of Britain, France, Russia China, Germany (the "Plus One"). "If he thinks he was dividing us it didn't work," says Burns now. Still, the Iranians later benefited from in Obama's "outstretched hand" in 2009, which Tehran spurned for another year before the U.S. began applying tougher sanctions.

Rouhani has reason to hope that a new outstretched hand will be the outcome of his efforts to reopen dialogue with the West, which he insisted "should speak to the Iranian people with respect and recognize the rights of the Islamic Republic," as he said at his first news conference. For the Iranians, the term "rights" has always been code for their right to uranium enrichment. Nonetheless praise poured in on a tide of relief and hopefulness. The White House said it wanted a "diplomatic solution that will fully address the international community's concerns about Iran's nuclear program," echoing conciliatory statements from France, Britain and Catherine Ashton, the EU representative for foreign affairs.

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