- Iran Knows Its Own Mind. Do We Know Ours?
We really don't know what the Iranian game is. Are we on the cusp of a new era in the U.S.-Iranian relationship with a deal on the nuclear issue that will lead to a broader regional modus vivendi? Or is the Rouhani diplomatic offensive designed to buy time, probe for weakness and division in allied ranks, neutralize the Israeli military option, and reinforce through charm and sweet talk an American president's already strong preference for diplomacy over war?
Nor does the United States fully grasp its own game. There is tremendous uncertainty about what, in the end, to do about Iran's quest for a nuclear weapon. Do we bomb if diplomacy fails? Do we contain? What do we do if/when Israel decides it must use force? Our policy oozes indecision. And it shows.
The mullahs are indeed smart and canny, and unlike U.S. leaders, they probably know their own mind on the nuclear issue. No matter how real Rouhani may be as a reformer and as a legitimate expression of a popular Iranian desire for change, he's still not the guy in charge. And the guy who is fashions himself the supreme leader of a truly great and historic nation confronted by an America and an Israel that seek to keep Iran down and to deny the country its rightful place in the region and the world. Iran is a country driven by a profound sense of insecurity and entitlement -- a very bad combination of personality traits in an individual, let alone in a nation.
Indeed, Ali Khamenei and his conservative-cum-revolutionary, security-minded cronies may well regard the quest for a nuclear weapons capacity as a basic right, part of their country's identity as a power, designed to bolster Iran's status -- and as a hedge against regime change and as cover to wield regional influence.
The pursuit of Iran's nuclear ambitions has been a national goal for quite some time. Indeed, had the Shah not been overthrown, Iran might already have been a nuclear state. For Iran to completely abandon that goal or to allow the United States to impose restrictions that would make it impossible to pursue it again in the future seems hard to imagine.
- The Rouhani Phenomenon
The emergence of Rouhani is the perfect play against the United States, because his election as president really does reflect reformist tendencies within the Iranian public and polity. Sanctions are ruining the economy and hold the potential to create serious popular discontent. Why not send abroad a smiling, attractive, and forthcoming president who can tone down the anti-Israeli rhetoric, accept the Holocaust, and deny Iran has a nuclear weapons program, even while Tehran continues to pursue said program?
The Iranian leadership can lie, dissemble, and pursue this two-track strategy without blinking an eye and without fear of any domestic backlash, all in an effort to see what kind of sanctions relief it can achieve and what it has to pay for it. If the price isn't right, it can recalibrate, turn on a dime, and effortlessly return to the hard-line rhetoric of Rouhani's predecessor.
For Obama, investing in Rouhani thus means risking being made to look the fool should the process reach the point where the mullahs determine that what we're offering isn't sufficient to meet their needs. And, while this budding relationship congeals, the U.S. president is in the uncomfortable position of having to explain every negative Iranian statement or action. Yet Iran has positioned Rouhani as a risk the United States feels it must take.