Security Insiders: Iranian President Rouhani’s Outreach to U.S. Is Genuine

Experts say Washington lost credibility with Iran by pursuing diplomacy in Syria.

Hassan Rouhani, President of the Islamic Republic of Iran addresses the audience during the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the United Nations in New York on September 24, 2013. 
AFP/Getty Images
Sara Sorcher
Sept. 30, 2013, 5 p.m.

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?

(53 votes)

  • Yes 68%
  • No 32%

YES

“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.”

NO

“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?

(53 votes)

  • Lost 60%
  • Gained 40%

LOST

“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.”

“Minor loss.”

“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.”

GAINED

“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. 

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