Iran’s new president has gotten off to an impressive start — or at least Hasan Rouhani has impressed the media. He tweeted out Yom Kippur greetings [see update], and managed to avoid Ann Curry’s invitation to engage in a little explicit Holocaust denial, which for a leader in the Iranian mullahcracy is at the very least a change of pace. That’s grading on a curve, however, as Dan Amira reminds us with his reaction to Rouhani’s “I’m not a historian” demurral. “”Rouhani doesn’t explicitly deny the Holocaust,” Amira writes at New York. “But he refuses to acknowledge its existence, which isn’t much better. You do not need to be a historian to know that the Holocaust happened any more than you need to be a barber to believe in Rouhani’s beard.”
Still, the change of tone has some believing that Rouhani has a specific mission from Ayatollah Ali Khameini to reach out to the West and settle the standoff over Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. The Christian Science Monitor wonders whether Rouhani’s charm offensive can deliver:
After more than six decades of strife, a senior adviser to Iran‘s leadership has signaled the country’s openness to a profound and historic strategic change in Iran’s relations with the West.
A brief letter from US President Obama offering potential relief from international sanctions in return for a swift agreement regarding Iran’s controversial nuclear program has been reportedly answered by an equally brief and amicable note from Iran’s moderate new president, Hassan Rouhani. …
Efforts to broker a deal on Iran’s nuclear program have long remained elusive. But the newly elected Iranian President Rouhani has matched his reputed private interest in reaching some kind of settlement with public statements: He told NBC two days ago that Iran will never develop nuclear weapons, and that he has sufficient political clout to reach a deal with the West on Iran’s program, saying: “We have sufficient political latitude to solve this problem.”
That brings us to the UN meeting next week in New York. Rouhani has the opportunity to meet with the leader of Western diplomacy, and the only question is … whether Vladimir Putin will arrive in time. Actually, that’s Barack Obama, and the White House signaled that the US would be open to an ad hoc summit, if Iran made its peaceful intentions clear:
President Obama is open to meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at next week’s United Nations General Assembly Meeting, the White House said Thursday.
Press secretary Jay Carney said Obama is “willing to have that meeting … provided that Iran demonstrates a seriousness about dealing with its nuclear weapons program.”
The AP’s Julie Pace and Lara Jakes report that expectations have already been raised:
The presidents of America and Iran may meet briefly next week for the first time, marking a symbolic but significant step toward easing their countries’ tense relationship. An exchange of letters between the leaders already has raised expectations for a thaw in relations, and any progress in dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile could signal whether their elusive diplomacy will last longer than a handshake.
At the heart of the U.S.-Iran impasse is a years-long dispute over Tehran’s nuclear program.
In small steps and encouraging statements, Iran’s leaders appear to be opening wider a door to detente. Cautiously optimistic yet still skeptical, Washington is weighing whether Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s recent overtures actually represent new policies or just new packaging.
I’d guess … new packaging. Tehran still hasn’t met its obligations for kidnapping American diplomatic personnel and keeping them hostage for 444 days, let alone its intransigence under the Non-Proliferation Treaty to which Iran is a signatory. Just this week, the US moved to seize ownership of a Manhattan skyscraper that Iran secretly owns in violation of the sanctions resulting from the 1979 seizure of the embassy in Tehran:
The United States is set seize control of a midtown Manhattan skyscraper prosecutors claim is secretly owned by Iran, the justice department said, though the ruling is to be appealed.
The seizure and sale of the 36-story building, in the heart of New York City on Fifth Avenue, would be “the largest-ever terrorism-related forfeiture,” the statement added.
A federal judge ruled in favor of the government’s suit this week, saying the building’s owners had violated Iran sanctions and money laundering laws.
Manhattan Federal Prosecutor Preet Bharara said the decision upholds the justice department claims the owner of the building “was (and is) a front for Bank Melli, and thus a front for the Government of Iran.”
Besides, meetings between heads of government typically take place after other contacts establish whether outreach is genuine or deceitful. That keeps the heads of state from getting publicly played by their enemies on the global stage, a status for which Iran not only qualifies, but openly declared repeatedly since 1979. Iran operates a terrorist proxy army in Hezbollah, which was responsible for the deaths of over 240 Marines in 1983, and also funds other radical Shi’a terrorist groups throughout the Middle East.
In that context, a meeting between the two would be premature, to say the least. But now that the expectations have been raised, and oddly encouraged by the White House, it may be impossible for Obama to avoid it. Backing away now could damage his standing in the strategic fight against Iran with our allies. And the opportunity to score a big (if meaningless) diplomatic coup after his humiliation by Putin may simply prove irresistible.
Anne Bayefsky writes that the dynamic has changed between the US and Iran in part because of the embarrassing denouement on Syria, and that Obama needs Rouhani now more than the other way around:
Nevertheless, the person who really runs Iran — Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei — has decided a new tone is in order. President Obama is clearly desperate for any lifeline. Why not toss him a “moderate” Iranian that the American president can use to avoid doing anything serious about preventing an Iranian nuke.
In light of Obama’s extreme reluctance to use “unbelievably small” force — as Secretary of State John Kerry described Obama’s Syria plan — manufacturing Rouhani’s moderate credentials is proving to be a piece of cake.
President Obama is even providing the prompts. He is withholding from the American people the congratulatory letter he sent to Rouhani, [even though] it is the vehicle by which the Iranian is donning a cloak of reasonableness. Rouhani described Obama’s letter to NBC this way: “The tone of the letter was positive and constructive.”
The new tone was accompanied by Iran’s staged release of eleven political prisoners. According to the Guardian, that leaves 800 or more to go, journalists, lawyers, human-rights activists, bloggers, feminists, Christians, Bahais — and Americans, such as Amir Hekmati, Saeed Abedini, and Bob Levinson. …
But never mind all that. The Obama administration appears positively breathless in anticipation of the New York rollout of “moderate” Rouhani.
So this week President Obama reduced his demand on Iran to a fraction of what is actually required to prevent an Iranian nuke. On September 17 he told Telemundo that Iran would have to demonstrate “that it’s not trying to weaponize nuclear power.”
Allowing Iran to move within a trigger finger of such weaponization gives the United States no capacity to stop it before it happens. We don’t even have the capacity to verify whether they have weaponized, once we allow them to get too close to it.
Israelis are charitably saying, publicly, that Iran is stalling for time. The truth is, President Obama is stalling for time.
Perhaps the Iranian mullahcracy has reformed, but I wouldn’t bet on it.