Shadow Government

Smooth-Talking Rouhani, Trash-Talking Ahmadinejad: Different Style, Same Substance

Trash-talking is a sports metaphor often used by individuals on the losing side of games. Rather than "walking the walk" (playing well), they "talk the talk." While Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad used trashy rhetoric about Holocaust denial and anti-Americanism cover up for his and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's mismanagement of the Iranian economy; enhanced U.N., EU, and U.S. trade and financial sanctions during Ahmadinejad's two terms; and the failure to survive serious infighting with other members of the ruling elite from the judiciary and parliament.

The good news about the Ahmadinejad era was consistency between Iran's rhetoric and its actions. Hot words were consistent with fast-spinning centrifuges moving Iran closer to enriching bomb-grade uranium. The bad news was that the major powers reached out to the Iranian regime despite rhetorical extremism and increased nuclear capability, while virtually ignoring the Iranian pro-democracy movement.

Negotiations with the Iranian regime continued on a sporadic basis in spite of the words and deeds. Tehran and the EU3 (Britain, France, and Germany) engaged in a proposal-counterproposal sequence from 2003 to 2005 (before and just after the advent of Ahmadinejad).

In July 2005, Hasan Rouhani, then secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council and now president of Iran, proposed to the EU3, among other things:

  • an agreement on initial limitations on uranium enrichment at the Natanz enrichment site, a facility revealed by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, the only pro-democracy organization that rejects clerical rule
  • negotiations for full-scale operation of Natanz
  • arrangements to import material for uranium conversion

But Rouhani, known as the "diplomatic sheikh," bragged about having duped the West in these negotiations. According to a March 2006 Telegraph article, Rouhani boasted that while nuclear talks took place in Tehran with the EU3, Iran was able to complete installation of equipment for conversion, a key stage in the nuclear fuel process, at its Isfahan plant.

The good news as the Rouhani era begins is that his words are soothing to our ears. It is good to hear from an Iranian president that he pledges to be moderate and flexible. The bad news is that Rouhani has only taken cosmetic steps to demonstrate moderation, and the West is bound to reach out even more to Rouhani because of a misperception of moderation.

As the U.N. General Assembly opens, Rouhani is on a charm offensive. But he also continues to say some of the same things his predecessor said, such as, Iran won't relinquish "one iota" of the country's nuclear rights. A campaign slogan, "moderation and wisdom," which continued during his inaugural address in August, is the tone that calms the Western mind and makes for humongous media coverage. And having a "good sense of humor" does not a moderate make.

Talking the talk may not translate into walking the walk; that is, tone may produce a "pen pal," U.S. President Barack Obama, but correspondence has to go beyond feel-good winks and nods to substantive changes. It is much easier for the media to cover comforting words than to discuss substantive polices like carrying out actions proposed by the major powers in the April 2013 Kazakhstan talks with the P5+1 (Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States, and Germany).

There is little evidence that Ahmadinejad and Rouhani differ on substance. A major stumbling block was and is Iran's claim to an inherent right to enrich uranium, which has been an obstacle in negotiations under successive Iranian presidents, including Ahmadinejad and Rouhani.

In addition to Iran's nuclear file, trash-talking Ahmadinejad and smooth-talking Rouhani see eye to eye on maltreatment of Iranian pro-democracy movements. Rouhani has not welcomed the National Council of Resistance of Iran, the largest unit of which is the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI), to participate in truly competitive elections. To do so would be to renounce the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran; it bestows on the supreme leader ultimate authority.

Indeed, Rouhani continues Ahmadinejad's policy of pressuring Baghdad to murder 52 members of the PMOI in Camp Ashraf, Iraq; force survivors to a prison-like Iraqi facility ironically called Camp Liberty; and hold seven as hostages in preparation for forcible removal to Iran where they fear being harmed. In a Sept. 19 letter this year, Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign-policy chief, stated that the hostages are held in a prison near Baghdad and there is "a significant risk that they could be sent to Iran."

In comparison with the Ahmadinejad era of consistency between rhetoric and actions in the quest for nuclear capability and persecution of pro-democracy groups, the Rouhani era shows consistency of actions to acquire a nuclear weapons capability and mistreatment of pro-democracy movements.

The only difference between Ahmadinejad and Rouhani is in style, not substance.

Raymond Tanter is president of the Iran Policy Committee and was a member of the National Security Council staff in Ronald Reagan's administration. His latest book is Arab Rebels and Iranian Dissidents.

Photo: ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Syria's Lessons for the Iran Nuclear Talks

Syria's Bashar al-Assad may have thrown a wrench into Iranian President Hasan Rouhani's plans for nuclear negotiations with the West -- if the United States learns the right lessons from the Syria experience.

It is by now conventional wisdom that Iran emerged as a clear winner in the U.S.-Russia diplomacy on Syria. To be sure, there was plenty for Tehran to like about this particular foreign-policy misadventure: the United States' hesitancy to enforce a red line or to use force, the West's willingness to focus narrowly on Assad's chemical weapons and ignore the broader threats posed by Assad and his allies, the public split between the United States and key regional allies like the Gulf Cooperation Council and Turkey, and the re-emergence of Russia, Iran's ally, as a player in the region.

But it would be a mistake to conclude that the outcome is entirely benign for Iran.

Rouhani's overarching objective in the nuclear talks, likely to resume soon, appears to be securing relief from economic sanctions at the minimum cost to Iran's nuclear options. To that end, media reports indicate that Rouhani will propose that Iran retain most of its enrichment and reprocessing capabilities and be given relief from the two primary threats facing the regime -- economic sanctions and military threats. In exchange, Iran will reportedly offer a range of transparency and verification measures, such as implementing the "Additional Protocol" to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, thereby ostensibly expanding International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors' access to Iranian nuclear sites.

The chemical weapons deal with Syria, however, complicates this approach. Barack Obama's administration and many in Congress have asserted that the deal was made possible only due to the credible threat of force. This explanation is facile; the credibility of the president's threat evaporated when it became clear that Congress would not authorize the use of force and the administration would not act absent that approval. In reality, having maneuvered himself into a corner through a deficient and undisciplined policy process, the president had little choice but to accept the Russian gambit.

Ironically, this collapse of credibility on Syria may prompt an effort to reinforce U.S. credibility on Iran. Because the alternative explanations of its behavior are so unpalatable, the Obama administration is now committed to the principle that credible threats of force facilitate diplomatic breakthroughs. And the administration's partners, from Congress to overseas allies, may well be eager to cooperate in any effort to bolster the credibility of U.S. military warnings to Iran, having themselves proven reluctant to endorse force against Syria.

Furthermore, the success of the Syria agreement hinges upon Assad's cooperation with weapons inspectors, just as any nuclear deal with Iran will depend on Tehran's facilitation of IAEA inspections.

But Assad -- who until just days ago denied having a chemical weapons program, just as Iran denies having a nuclear weapons program -- is far more likely to obstruct the inspectors, and Moscow is likely to abet him. Assad has consistently failed to follow through with his promises or live up to international agreements, and he will likely try to retain some of his chemical weapons as insurance against a still-raging uprising.

Thus, the inspections regime for Syria, by virtue of its timing and Iran's close alliance with Assad, will inevitably be seen as a test case in the value of transparency measures in addressing threats of weapons of mass destruction and building diplomatic confidence. Syrian misbehavior will not just sour Washington and its allies on the Syria deal, but should also make the Obama administration wary of the value of monitoring and verification as substitutes for farther-reaching limits on Iranian nuclear work. Rouhani would surely rather look elsewhere for an apotheosis of compliance.

Finally, Syria is a case study in a tactical success that is nevertheless a strategic setback. Even if Assad gives up his chemical weapons against all expectations, his prospects for not only surviving the uprising but strengthening his grip on power -- despite Obama and many other world leaders insisting he must go -- have increased.

Similarly, Rouhani's great achievement during his first stint as Iran's nuclear negotiator was to deflect serious consequences in the wake of the exposure of Iran's theretofore-secret enrichment and reprocessing-related activities, at the low cost of their suspension until the threat of U.S. attack had subsided in 2005. Rouhani has once again been called upon to get Iran out of a jam, and can be expected -- like Assad, and like himself a decade ago -- to try to secure victory out of retreat.

For the Obama administration, Syria must serve as a wake-up call as the administration enters a more serious phase of nuclear diplomacy with Iran. The White House has -- quite inadvertently -- partnered with Congress to forge a policy combining heavy pressure and repeated outreach that may now have Iran considering changing course. But until Tehran does so fully and sustainably, the United States must not just continue its diplomacy but also maintain and reinforce the pressure that has gotten it this far, lest its tactical gains give way to strategic failure.