Iranian President Hassan Rouhani — who last week attempted to charm the pants off the United Nations, President Barack Obama, world Jewry and Charlie Rose — may succeed in convincing many people that the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, doesn’t actually want to gain control of a nuclear arsenal.
Why Rouhani would assert this is obvious: The sanctions that the United States is imposing on Iran are doing real economic damage. A crippled economy threatens the interests of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and thus the regime’s stability. We know that the regime isn’t popular among many segments of the Iranian population — witness the brutal crackdown on large-scale protests in 2009 — and that it must make at least some of its citizens happy if it is to survive in the long term.
Rouhani hopes to convince the world that Iran’s nuclear intentions are peaceful and that his country is a rational, thoughtful player on the global stage and, therefore, please give us access once again to the international banking system. Here are some reasons to doubt the sincerity of Iran’s protestations:
1) Rouhani, so far at least, hasn’t indicated that Iran is open to reversing course on its nuclear program. He has actually said that the regime will not even talk about suspending uranium enrichment.
2) Compared to the previous president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Rouhani is a moderate, likable figure. But this is an example of defining deviancy down. Rouhani obviously looks moderate when compared to a Holocaust-denying lunatic. Of course, Rouhani has declared himself to be neutral on the question of whether the Holocaust actually happened. He has just done this in a less confrontational way.
3) Having a nuclear arsenal is in the best interests of Iran’s rulers. Put yourself in the shoes of the supreme leader for a moment. You’re surrounded by enemies: Almost the entire Sunni Muslim world despises you. The Jewish state, for which you have a pathological hatred, is trying to undermine your security. And behind them all stands the U.S., the country formerly known as the Great Satan, whose president says he isn’t interested in regime change — but can you actually trust an American president? Of course not. A nuclear weapon in your hands does two vital things. It protects you from external efforts to overthrow your government, and it allows you to project your power across the Middle East. You’ve seen what happens to Middle Eastern leaders who don’t have nuclear capabilities — Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gadhafi — and you don’t want to share their fate.
4) It’s true that the supreme leader has argued that the use of nuclear weapons is un-Islamic. Therefore, the regime would never seek such weapons. I’d only point out that mass murder of innocent people is also prohibited by Islam, but Khamenei’s government engages in this practice through its support for Hezbollah and Bashar Assad in Syria, among others. The regime also kills many people directly, of course, including peacefully protesting Iranians.
5) The supreme leader is, in fact, the nuclear program’s chief backer. Reuel Marc Gerecht, the former Central Intelligence Agency officer and an Iran expert, said that in Khamenei’s eyes, “He would disgrace himself before God and his praetorians, the Revolutionary Guards” if he were to give up his nuclear ambitions in exchange for an easing of sanctions. “He has invested everything in the nuclear program. It is the core of the Islamic Republic’s defense against America. Khamenei would be saying to all that America and the rest of the West had defeated him. He would forfeit the Islamic revolution and quite likely his rule.”
After years of Ahmadinejad’s alienating hijinks, Iran has chosen a different path. It has now a president (and chief negotiator) who is smooth and affable and comparatively moderate. But Rouhani has been invested in his country’s nuclear program for years, and there are no signs that he’s interested in disarming in exchange for the lifting of sanctions.
So what’s the play? Divide and conquer is my guess. Split the Europeans from the Americans, and the Americans from the Israelis (and the Arabs, who are also fearful of a nuclear Iran). Promise negotiations and make changes at the margins that are suggestive of broad agreement. At the same time, keep the centrifuges spinning and bring the nuclear program to the point where a bomb could be produced in a mere six or eight weeks after the supreme leader decides to cross the threshold. An Iran with the capacity to produce weapons in six weeks is a nuclear Iran. Israel and the Arab states know this, which is why they’re so worried about American enthusiasm for Rouhani.
Does this mean that the U.S. shouldn’t negotiate? Absolutely not. The Obama administration should test Iran immediately. They are, in fact, squeezed by sanctions. Perhaps the squeeze is more damaging than we even think. But these negotiations should be time-limited, and sanctions shouldn’t be lifted prematurely — the sanctions are what brought the crisis to this point.
One other thing the administration should do: Listen to its former arms control expert, Gary Samore, who, according to Foreign Policy magazine, said this about the regime: “Nobody is fooled by the charm offense; everybody understands the supreme leader is seeking nuclear weapons. No matter how many times Rouhani smiles doesn’t change the basic objective of the program.”
Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist.