Stay the course on Iran

Reports of Iran’s preparations of a new ballistic missile launch site at Shahrud, however, underscore a fundamental truth of modern diplomacy: Hope springs eternal in democracies, and autocratic regimes know how to exploit it to their advantage.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve heard intriguing statements from the Obama administration.  On August 4, White House spokesman Jay Carney said of Iran’s nuclear program, “Should this new government choose to engage substantively and seriously to meet its international obligations and find a peaceful solution to this issue, it will find a willing partner in the United States." A senior administration official echoed this view: "(We) want to give the newly elected president a chance to engage substantively on the issue."

Get ready for a re-run of the same old soap opera that we’ve seen before.  Iran’s English-speaking made-for-TV mouthpieces will entice us with the promise of “dialogue”, “confidence-building” and “mutual respect.”  U.S. officials will respond with studied sobriety and qualified caution. Diplomatic foreplay in the form of enticing public statements will be followed by talks about talks.

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The question is:  Will the government of President Rouhani prove fundamentally different in outlook and intentions than its predecessors? Not likely. Iran isn’t interested in compromise or concessions.  Their intentions are clear, their resolve unwavering.

Consider the facts.  While the Iranian presidency may have changed hands, the underlying realities of Iranian power have not.  The president’s powers are quite limited.  Constitutionally, authority rests in the Supreme Leader, who once described the president as a mere “logistics man.” In addition to controlling the executive, legislative and judicial branches, the Supreme Leader appoints the commanders of the Revolutionary Guards, Armed Forces and state radio and TV. Foreign policy and national security are under his direct supervision.

An examination of President Rouhani’s past leaves little optimism that, circumscribed though he may be, the leopard will change his spots. Rouhani served on the regime’s Supreme Defense Council from 1982 to 1988. Starting in 1989, Rouhani served as Secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) for sixteen years.  He was National Security Advisor to the President for 13 years (1989-1997 and 2000-2005). He was Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005.

As chief nuclear negotiator, Rouhani oversaw the diplomatic initiative with the U.S. and EU that produced the first suspension of Iran’s uranium enrichment program. While the West saw this agreement as a “breakthrough, Iran used it to further its nuclear program.  At a 2005 meeting of the Supreme Council of Cultural Revolution, Rouhani boasted, “When we were negotiating with Europeans in Tehran, we were still installing some of the equipment at the Isfahan site… In reality, by creating a tame situation, we could finish Isfahan.”

During his tenure on the National Security Council, Rouhani took similarly hard-line positions toward opponents of the regime. He led the crackdown on the student uprising in 1999, in which over a thousand students were killed, arrested, tortured or disappeared.

Rouhani’s positions on other issues of concern to the United States and its allies are hardly more encouraging.  On Syria, he told the Arabic daily Al Sharq al Awsat on June 15, 2013, “Syria is the only country in the region which has stood against Israel’s expansionist policies and measures in the region.” Iran continues to actively destabilize America’s allies in the Arabian Gulf – Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen are among the most vulnerable. Expect state-sponsored terror to remain a mainstay of Iranian diplomacy.

President Rouhani represents a change of tactics, not strategic intent. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei remains committed to developing a nuclear weapons capability and extending its influence throughout the region.  Without a change of regime at the top, we are fated to remain in conflict. The outlook, however, is not entirely bleak. The Supreme Leader’s hold on power is much attenuated since that of Khomeini back in 1988. Iran is not immune from the revolution of social media and the unrest sweeping the Arab world.  The regime’s popular base is at an all-time low. Internationally, Tehran is similarly isolated.  Its strategic reserves are depleted; sanctions are taking their toll and international resolve remains steadfast.

Now is not the time to give the regime breathing room.  It will reinforce the power of the hard-liners and undermine the unity of purpose of our allies.  Stay the course on Iran.

Ereli is a former State Department Deputy Spokesman and Ambassador to the Kingdom of Bahrain.