Cliff May

There’s nothing wrong with wishful thinking — unless it gets confused with serious thinking. Policy makers and legislators have a professional responsibility to resist that temptation.

Yes, I have something in mind: a letter sent last week by 131 House members urging President Obama to “pursue the potential opportunity presented by Iran’s recent presidential election.” What “potential opportunity” is that? Hassan Rouhani, the new president-elect, they say, “campaigned on the promise to ‘pursue a policy of reconciliation and peace’ and has since promised ‘constructive interaction with the outside world.’”

Should we not expect American politicians (of all people!) to demonstrate a little skepticism when it comes to “promises” made by an Iranian politician? And how much research is required to figure out that Rouhani has said nothing even to suggest that he opposes Iran’s support for terrorism abroad (including its past attempts to blow up airplanes and restaurants in the U.S), gross violations of human rights domestically, threats of genocide against Israelis, and, of course, illegal nuclear-weapons program?

There is a lot we don’t know about Rouhani, but this much ought to be obvious: He is a political clergyman and a loyal acolyte of Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader and self-proclaimed “shadow of God upon Earth.” Were that not so, Khamenei would not permit Rouhani to become Iran’s president. Remember: There were 686 registered candidates for the last election. Only eight were allowed to run. Loyalty to the Supreme Leader and adherence to his ideology/theology were required. Khamenei also made clear to the lucky finalists that under no circumstances are they to “make concessions to the enemies.”

There are ways in which Rouhani is different from your run-of-the-mill Iranian jihadist apparatchik: He speaks our language. He studied in Scotland. He certainly has insights into the peculiar psychology of the Westerner, which may explain why, when he served as Iran’s lead nuclear negotiator a decade ago, he consistently ate the lunch of those on the other side of the table.

Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, has taken the trouble to read what Rouhani has written over the years. He tells me that Rouhani has candidly stressed that “one of the goals of his nuclear diplomacy was to create a wedge” between the United States and its European allies so that Iran could import nuclear technology without incurring Western penalties. By contrast, the antagonistic approach of Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and his nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, raised Western hackles and brought painful sanctions upon Iran.

In other words, Rouhani’s “moderation” has been stylistic, not substantive. The evidence indicates that to him “constructive interaction” means persuading the enemy to let down his guard.

Which is essentially what the congressmen are proposing — right after telling the president that Rouhani has “publicly expressed the view that obtaining a nuclear weapon would run counter to Iran’s strategic interests.”

No, actually, Rouhani has expressed the view that Iran’s strategic interests are best served not by obtaining “a” nuclear weapon but by developing an industrial-size nuclear capability to manufacture dozens of them. Achieving that requires spinning centrifuges and stocking up on enriched uranium until there is enough for “undetectable breakout” — the ability to make weapons-grade uranium (or sufficiently reprocessed plutonium) so quickly that neither U.N. inspectors nor foreign intelligence agencies are aware it’s happening.

This approach is not new. Alfoneh tells me it was spelled out by Abdollah Ramezanzadeh, a spokesman for Mohammad Khatami, Iran’s president from 1997 to 2005. Defending Khatami’s record on the nuclear portfolio in 2008, Ramezanzadeh said, “We had one overt policy, which was one of negotiation and confidence building, and a covert policy, which was continuation of the activities.” — meaning advancing toward a nuclear-weapons capability.

Ramezanzadeh concluded, “Today, in the field of confidence building, Japan is the most advanced country in the world, but Japan can produce a nuclear bomb in less than a week.” Exactly: the minute politicians give the command.

The congressmen advise the White House that “it would be a mistake not to test whether Dr. Rouhani’s election represents a real opportunity for progress toward a verifiable, enforceable agreement on Iran’s nuclear program that ensures the country does not acquire a nuclear weapon.” Quite right, but, perversely, no test of Rouhani is then proposed. What they recommend instead is more like a test of the United States. Washington, they say, must be “careful not to preempt this potential opportunity by engaging in actions that delegitimize the newly elected president and weaken his standing relative to hardliners within the regime.”

How in heaven’s name would it “delegitimize” Rouhani if American negotiators were to make clear that he’ll be judged by his actions, not his rhetoric, and that the offers we’ve put on the table — most recently during negotiations in Kazakhstan in the spring — will remain on the table, but will be neither weakened nor sweetened in exchange for his smile?

Is it so difficult to comprehend that if we backpedal now, signaling our eagerness to appease, Rouhani will say to the hardliners: “You see how simple this can be? Do you finally understand why it is more effective to attract flies with baklava than with vinegar? And do you further grasp that, when you do it my way, the flies become calm and easier to swat at a time of our choosing?”

If last week’s letter is bad advice, what should the congressmen be telling Obama instead? To stay on track — as they should be, too. Of the 131 signers of the letter, 86 also are cosponsors of legislation authored by Ed Royce and Eliot Engel, the top Republican and Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, establishing a de facto oil embargo against Iran as well as a significant reduction in non-humanitarian commercial trade.

The impact of sanctions is hard to gauge with precision because Tehran conceals basic economic facts. For example: If the current level of Iran’s accessible foreign-exchange reserves is north of $100 billion, the regime can soldier on for a long time. If, however, as some analysts believe, the Iranians have only $20–30 billion in their coffers with a rapid rate of depletion, they could be facing imminent economic collapse.

Rouhani will have more influence on the Supreme Leader — not less — if he can warn that an oil embargo is coming and will hit Iran hard. After that, as economist Nouriel Roubini and FDD analyst John Hannah recently wrote, “Time is running out on peaceful options to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.”

Rouhani needs to be convinced that force is a credible option. Remember that in 2004, he did persuade the Supreme Leader to temporarily suspend uranium enrichment in response to American soldiers’ pulling Saddam Hussein out of a spider hole in neighboring Iraq.

In the coming months (not years), American leaders will have to decide whether on their watch the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism, a self-proclaimed revolutionary jihadist regime that calls America “Satan incarnate,” will be permitted to acquire the nuclear weapons it needs to dominate the Middle East and reshape the world order.

How wonderful it would be if, within Iran’s ruling elite, there were a moderate eager to avoid this confrontation and establish amicable relations. But that is not reality. If wishes were horses, 131 members of Congress would be galloping down Pennsylvania Avenue this week. It’s their job to dismount and plant their feet firmly on the ground.


Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.