At the United Nations General Assembly last week, recently elected Iranian president Hassan Rouhani made remarks that referenced the Torah, condemned a chemical weapons attack conducted by a fellow Shiite ally, and said that Iran was open to crafting a framework to ease its tensions with the West on its nuclear ambitions.
Iran-watchers here in Lebanon and back home in the U.S. praised these statements, but the world must meet Iran’s apparent ideological shift with cautious optimism. We must continue to press, perhaps even intensify, economic sanctions against Tehran until there is clear evidence that it has abandoned all nuclear ambitions.
The U.S. and the Middle East should not blindly embrace a reformer who has not yet reformed, and we should certainly not expect a U.S. embassy to open in the Islamic Republic anytime soon.
Since taking office in August, Rouhani, a former nuclear negotiator for Iran and a lawyer by trade, has sent Rosh Hashanah greetings to Israel and condemned the Holocaust. He has also released political prisoners, agreed to nuclear negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Agency, and even had a brief telephone conversation with President Obama, breaking a political silence of almost 40 years. These were all unthinkable under his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who frequently used the General Assembly to deny the Holocaust, detained an unprecedented number of political prisoners during the Green Revolution in 2009 following his disputed re-election, and often referred to the U.S. and Israel as the “devil nations.”
Rouhani is certainly an upgrade, but we must be extremely cautious. Despite his claim that Iran’s uranium enrichment is purely for infrastructure development and domestic energy production, many continue to speculate that Iran is growing closer to producing weapons-grade uranium at its Fordow facility, which is buried underneath a mountain, making it almost impossible to attack. The regime also remains on schedule to open a new nuclear facility next year that could give it an alternate route to a plutonium-based nuclear bomb.
A nuclear weapon in Iran would further destabilize the region and trigger the parameters for a war that President Obama and the American public do not want. Obama was called on his bluff to strike Syria and was able to clumsily scramble a diplomatic bailout, but the same cannot and will not happen if Iran obtains a weapon of mass destruction.
All indicators in the Middle East point to Iran continuing its suicidal march toward nuclear weapons. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s only regional ally, will eventually be disposed of one way or another, thus isolating Iran on the geopolitical stage. This would leave Iran as the only Shiite government in the area, and the regime will respond by accelerating its nuclear weapon production as it competes against a rising tide of Sunni-Arab influence in the region.
On top of this, Iran’s economy has been decimated under eight years of international sanctions aimed directly at curbing its nuclear ambitions. It would be incredibly naïve to think a newly elected president would ignore a domestic political threat coming from a population with a history of social revolution. Rouhani is going to seize any opportunity to remove economic pressures against his country, but he is also not going to abandon his nuclear program.
Rouhani will instead take a page out of North Korea’s playbook. He will agree to talks with nuclear inspectors and will temporarily suspend uranium enrichment on the surface until the international community lifts major components of its sanctions. He will then press the restart button on the reactors and resume the enrichment process.
In the end, Rouhani is the puppet taking orders from Ayatollah Khamenei, the true head of state in Iran. Khamenei has been anti-Western since the 1953 coup, orchestrated by the U.K. and the U.S., that overthrew democratically-elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh and placed Shah Pahlavi in power. Pahlavi was later overthrown in 1979 during the Islamic Revolution — and you wonder why they hate us. As long as Iran maintains an anti-Western doctrine within its top-down style government, there will always be a desire in Tehran to pursue nuclear weapons.
However, if Iran is serious about turning the page on its nuclear ambitions and becoming a transparent country, as Rouhani has suggested, he should comply with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. This would give IAEA officials expanded rights of access within Iran to see if Rouhani is actually being truthful.
I certainly hope he is telling the truth. As much as we cannot afford to have a nuclear armed Iran, no sane person would promote a war with that nation — all the more reason why President Obama must maintain economic sanctions and continue to be cautiously optimistic about Rouhani’s intentions.