A strong majority of National Journal's National Security Insiders say Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's recent outreach to the U.S. and his claim that he has sufficient political latitude to negotiate on the country's nuclear program are genuine.
Insiders, polled during the United Nations General Assembly last week when Rouhani stressed his intention to convince the West his country has no interest in a nuclear weapon, had faith in the newly elected Iranian leader's charm offensive. "The indications over the past several weeks that a new course is being set in Tehran are so numerous that it is undeniable that a genuine and significant change has occurred," one Insider said. The sanctions are really hurting Iran, another added, "and the mullahs have to be fearing an uprising out of economic frustration."
Still, Insiders were cautious in their optimism. The outreach is genuine, one Insider said, but it remains "unclear if [there's] enough domestic support to make hard concessions—especially if the U.S. is slow to embrace." It's in Iran's long-term interest to forge a better relationship with the U.S. and international community, another Insider added. "The U.S. should engage with Iran, but also be cautious, and live by the old mantra 'trust but verify.' "
"I think they see U.S. engagement in Iraq as finished, they see U.S. engagement in Afghanistan as winding down, and they know that we'll be shopping around for someone to beat up on relatively soon," one Insider said. "This is their way of saying: 'Not it.' "
About one-third of Insiders were less swayed by Rouhani. "It's a ruse to provide Iran more space to continue its uranium-enrichment projects and take advantage of the U.S. reluctance to back up its words with a real threat of military action as witnessed with Syria," one Insider said.
"Count me as a skeptic," another added. "Until the Iranians actually grant unfettered access to international inspectors at all their nuclear facilities and stop their uranium-enrichment programs, you have to see President Rouhani's efforts as a clever ploy to get the West."
Separately, 60 percent of Insiders said the U.S. lost credibility with Iran by pursuing the diplomatic deal to remove Syria's chemical weapons. "[Obama] conveyed political weakness, insincerity in his convictions, and indecisiveness," one Insider said. "Just what Iran wants to see in a prospective negotiating partner."
"Dumb luck does not equal deft diplomacy, much less any credible projection of power and influence," another Insider said. The threat of military action, an Insider said, should only have been invoked after diplomatic alternatives had been exhausted. "Since that didn't happen, the Iranians see the U.S. as weak and indecisive."
Yet 40 percent of Insiders said the U.S. gained credibility with Iran. "Obama ended up demonstrating that he is interested in removing a security threat, not bent on regime change," one Insider said. "That is a reassuring message in Tehran."
1. Do you believe new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's outreach to the U.S. and his claim that he has sufficient political latitude to negotiate are genuine?
- Yes 68%
- No 32%
"Always tricky, but worth the risk."
"Yes, I think they naturally want to test whether Obama is ready to make concessions to them on the key stumbling a block—the question of whether Iran will be permitted to enrich uranium. Obama's enthusiasm for entering negotiations—unmistakable to the Iranians—suggests they are reading him right. Just as was the case with the New Start negotiation with Moscow, Obama is signaling that he needs a deal more than they do, which means the U.S. would start out in such negotiations at a terrible disadvantage."
"Until he doesn't. That will become known when the rug is pulled out from under him by the supreme religious leader."
"It about time we reach a détente with Iran and begin imposing sanctions on Israel until they sign the NPT, admit they have hundreds of nuclear weapons, and allow inspectors in."
"Yes, but not to negotiate elimination of the nuclear-weapons program, only to renew and drag out negotiations. This tactical shift has come for two reasons: accumulated economic sanctions are biting a lot, and the ruling clerics are spooked by the surprise election as president of the most moderate candidate."
"Sanctions are destabilizing their country."
"The ability to exploit delicate diplomatic openings requires both the willingness to believe that radical change in Iran is possible and an adequate dose of skeptism to recognize when it isn't. What's to lose?"
"Genuine, yes. Sufficient, no."
"We should take him at his word until deeds prove otherwise."
"Depending on how far he goes. The mullahs want to move beyond Ahmadinejad and his hostile and provocative rhetoric. And the sanctions are biting hard at home. They need some breathing room at least from the West."
"It's as good as we're going to get, but we'll probably make a hash of it by demanding too much too soon and wind up back on the path to war, which is a shame."
"It might be time sensitive, but it seems genuine."
"Given the alternatives, we have to give this a shot."
"The best first step would be actions not words."
"No, because of his long-standing record and Iran's long-standing record. The ayatollahs still remain strong."
"Rouhani is more pragmatic and tactical than moderate and strategic. Still, I'm open to him proving me wrong."
"Good cop, bad cop routine while the U.S. plays the fool."
2. By pursuing the diplomatic deal to remove Syria's chemical weapons, do you think President Obama lost or gained credibility with Iran?
- Lost 60%
- Gained 40%
"Iran sees a window of opportunity to take advantage of U.S. weakness and reluctance to enter into another military conflict in the Middle East to use a charm offensive with a new President Rouhani."
"The president can gain credibility with Iran, however, if he carries out a punishing strike against Syrian leadership and security targets if, as is likely, Syria fails to comply in a timely way with the Kerry-Lavrov framework agreement."
"It could be Rouhani's outreach is a gambit to alter U.S. behavior. It is working for Russia and Syria."
"Not only did we undermine our credibility with Iran, but also with our allies Israel, South Korea, Taiwan, etc."
"We have absolutely no credibility dealing with Iran or anybody else who sees weakness and recognizes it."
"Credible red lines need to be certain, swift and substantial. I think we are 0 for 3."
"Iran respects strength—they saw an impotent U.S. president mangle this issue at home and internationally."
"President Obama has lost credibility over Syria with just about everyone except his wife, children, and dog.
Our demonstrated weakness and diplomatic buffoonery will invite further Iranian aggression."
"I think the two events are not related, but we should take advantage of this opportunity—even if we stumbled into it."
"Obama ended up demonstrating that he is interested in removing a security threat, not bent on regime change. That is a reassuring message in Tehran."
"Unless you follow Hobbes, a balanced statecraft is always preferred."
"If the deal with Syria works, then it may provide a template for how Iran can engage constructively with the world with respect to its current or future nuclear capabilities."
"The threat of U.S. military action was real enough to show the Iranians that a political settlement will be the preferred avenue going forward. It is nonsense to think that the U.S. would not use military force if national interests were threatened and diplomacy failed to resolve the crisis.... We have demonstrated that many times."
"He shows he has the courage to stand up to McCain and the pro-war crowd when necessary."
"If there is a diplomatic 'way out,' U.S. military men and women's lives should not be put on the line in one country just to send a message to another country. Now, if the diplomatic deal requires military power to enforce (it probably will), that's another matter entirely."
"One of the most damaging and persistent myths is that the more the U.S. either threatens or uses military force, the more conciliatory Iran will be."
"Obama showed resolve to use military force. That is what the Iranians understand."
"The Iranians had no reason to believe that Obama had real flexibility to deal with them, in any case. His Syrian deal, inelegant as it appears, probably changes the thinking in a very stressed Tehran. A net gain."
"I think what Obama did, completely by mistake mind you, was to show a willingness to consider a not-violent action which may have appealed to Iran."
"As much as Obama stumbled into this solution, it works for all involved including Iran. Loose chem weapons don't present an appetizing option to them either. They can fall into the hands of regime enemies as well. Tehran does not want an already-on-edge Israel to be further provoked."
"Neither, and the fact that we're still discussing how a commitment on a humanitarian issue in Syria affects Iran's perception of how concerned we are about their nuclear program indicates that nobody in the foreign-policy establishment reads or cares about social-science research. Some of us think that's a problem."
"The willingness to deal with Syria signals that the Obama administration is not solely interested in regime change, which is of obvious interest to Iran. Still, on the whole, this matters only on the margins."
National Journal's National Security Insiders Poll is a periodic survey of more than 100 defense and foreign policy experts. They include: Gordon Adams, Charles Allen, Thad Allen, James Bamford, David Barno, Milt Bearden, Peter Bergen, Samuel "Sandy" Berger, David Berteau, Stephen Biddle, Nancy Birdsall, Marion Blakey, Kit Bond, Stuart Bowen, Paula Broadwell, Mike Breen, Mark Brunner, Steven Bucci, Nicholas Burns, Dan Byman, James Jay Carafano, Phillip Carter, Wendy Chamberlin, Michael Chertoff, Frank Cilluffo, James Clad, Richard Clarke, Steve Clemons, Joseph Collins, William Courtney, Lorne Craner, Roger Cressey, Gregory Dahlberg, Robert Danin, Richard Danzig, Daniel Drezner, Mackenzie Eaglen, Paul Eaton, Andrew Exum, William Fallon, Eric Farnsworth, Jacques Gansler, Stephen Ganyard, Daniel Goure, Mark Green, Mike Green, Mark Gunzinger, John Hamre, Jim Harper, Michael Hayden, Michael Herson, Pete Hoekstra, Bruce Hoffman, Linda Hudson, Paul Hughes, Colin Kahl, Donald Kerrick, Rachel Kleinfeld, Lawrence Korb, David Kramer, Andrew Krepinevich, Charlie Kupchan, W. Patrick Lang, Cedric Leighton, James Lindsay, Justin Logan, Trent Lott, Peter Mansoor, Ronald Marks, Brian McCaffrey, Steven Metz, Franklin Miller, Philip Mudd, John Nagl, Shuja Nawaz, Kevin Nealer, Michael Oates, Thomas Pickering, Paul Pillar, Larry Prior, Stephen Rademaker, Marc Raimondi, Celina Realuyo, Bruce Riedel, Barry Rhoads, Marc Rotenberg, Frank Ruggiero, Kori Schake, Mark Schneider, John Scofield, Tammy Schultz, Stephen Sestanovich, Sarah Sewall, Matthew Sherman, Jennifer Sims, Constanze Stelzenmüller, Frances Townsend, Mick Trainor, Suzanne Spaulding, Ted Stroup, Richard Wilhelm, Tamara Wittes, Dov Zakheim, and Juan Zarate.
This article appears in the October 1, 2013, edition of NJ Daily.