A man "may smile, and smile, and be a villain," to quote a play of some renown called "The Tragedy of Hamlet" (Act I, Scene V). This suave new "moderate" president of Iran smiles and smiles, too. Experienced and worldly diplomat that he is, His Excellency Hassan Rouhani dispenses ever more rhetorical softsoap, the kind guaranteed to ease and smooth, all the while winning time. And time is the one invaluable, irreplaceable commodity in that other great tragedy, the one called Realpolitik. Or sometimes The Great Game of Nations. And his excellency's skill at it is undeniable, for he's played this game before. Expertly.
Visiting the United Nations last month, Hassan Rouhani denied the president of the United States a public handshake but managed to turn him into a supplicant nevertheless. Yes, no doubt about it, the man is smooth. Smooth as a serpent's smile.
Not long after the mullahs in Teheran were starting out on their long, patient trek toward a nuclear weapon of their own, Hassan Rouhani recalled how easy it had been to get one of Iran's first nuclear facilities built at Isfahan without arousing international opposition. All he had to do was lull Western leaders into a sense of complacency while the uranium was being enriched and the centrifuges readied. As he wrote in 2006, "by creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work on Isfahan." As we say around here, this ain't his first rodeo -- or his first charm offensive. He's had experience. And considerable, ever more ominous, successes.
Now the West, and the world, is being treated to another verse of the same siren's song -- how Iran is interested in nuclear power just for peaceful purposes, and seeks only good relations with Washington, and so sweetly on. Once again his excellency smiles and smiles, playing for time, while Washington -- or at least this administration -- drops its guard.
It was left to John Bolton, who lost his position in the last administration for being all too candid, to outline how this president, too, has retreated -- step by step, almost in tandem with the Long Stall that Iran's rulers have learned to substitute for any real negotiations.
To quote John Bolton's list of Barack Obama's retreats just of late: "Over the past year, Mr. Obama failed in his stated objective to oust Syria's Assad regime from power; failed to impress Assad that his 'red line' against using chemical weapons was serious; failed to exact retribution when that red line was crossed; failed to rally anything but small minorities in either house of Congress to support his position...."
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