Why should the watching world, and especially we wary Americans, trust Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s charismatic new reformist, now that he has completed what the more suspicious among us call his “charm attack” at the United Nations?
There are answers, even in the face of immense skepticism. And it will be well to keep these reasons to believe in mind as the week unfolds.
Benjamin Netanyahu will be in the Oval Office Monday, and President Obama is sure to get an earful as to the dangers of Hassan’s “media spin,” as the Israeli Prime Minister calls it—a trick, a trap, propaganda and nothing more. Netanyahu then goes to the UN General Assembly for his turn at the podium. The Jerusalem Post tells us he plans to compare Iran with North Korea—an evocation of the old “axis of evil” thesis.
Combined with the reservoir of mistrust Americans have accumulated over 34 years without relations, some bloom is sure to come off the flowers of hope that arose when Obama and Rouhani had a last-minute telephone conversation just before the weekend.
So it should. News of the cheerful ‘phoner’, the first direct contact between American and Iranian leaders since the shah’s final days in 1979, was hugely encouraging, and maybe too much so.
The worry now lies in the other direction. Compulsive, groundless, out-of-habit rejection of all any Iranian leader may say is at this moment the greatest threat to progress of historical magnitude in the Middle East.
A lot could go wrong in the diplomatic process to come—all on its own or by way of purposeful efforts to scuttle the ship. Rouhani’s sincerity of purpose is low-risk as of his New York visit. Skepticism can self-fulfill—in this case pushing Rouhani into the jaws of his reactionary adversaries at home.
The new president wants to normalize relations with the US, gain acceptance of Iran’s nuclear program (and trust as to its intent), take its place in the community of nations, exercise constructive influence in the Middle East, repair the obvious messes of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and get along with Israel.
Rouhani is tired, like most Iranians, of living in a gritty alley. He likes a safe, quiet neighborhood. You greet the people next door on Rosh Hashanah, they wish you a nice Nowruz. These are the announced goals, by word and gesture.
Among the things Americans have to learn if they are to cut a new deal with Iran is to see things from other perspectives. Here are five reasons to consider exploring a potential relationship with Iran.
1. Everyone knows U.S. sanctions have been effective. From Rouhani’s POV, the economy is now somewhere between crisis and pre-collapse desperation. Oil exports and international banking are the most acute problems. The former is the sine qua non source of national revenue. The latter is of the same importance for the commercial and industrial sectors, which are more globalized than one may assume.
By tradition there are three power centers in Iran: the clergy, the bazaaris (the merchant class), and the intellectuals, who are seen as Westernizers, and secularists. The economy is highly political in this context. Rouhani needs to deliver in this dimension to win support for his agenda. Sanctions have to fall.
2. Rouhani needs to preserve the nuclear program, and to do so his repudiation of any ambition to weaponize must be nickel-plated. To Iranians, nuclear power is a totem of sovereignty and equality. It would be across-the-board unacceptable for Rouhani to deal away the program. He needs it to prove he is an Iranian leader who can the match the West. Then he can get other things done.
Nuclear power is also key to the national economic strategy. We understood this once, when we sold Iran its first research reactor under Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program. But we have since forgotten the idea.
“It makes no sense to believe that these people, who are swimming in oil, are building for nuclear electricity,” Mort Zuckerman said on “The McLaughlin Group” Sunday. “This is preposterous. The only reason is to develop nuclear weapons.” Defective thinking, betraying both historical and economic ignorance. Oil exports fund development; Iran exports more if it uses less. Resource substitution is commonplace in international economics. The policy articulated now—nuclear power, not nukes—is a straight follow-on from the pre-revolutionary period.
Americans can and will insist upon many inspections. Fine. All sides must be satisfied.
But in the end the US will have to prove itself capable of making the same distinction it does in the cases of Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and others: Nuclear capable, not nuclear armed, is a creditable ambition for a middle-income, non–Western nation. It is crucial to avoid the mistake of demanding of Iran that it forego what it has a right to have under international law.
3. Rouhani recognizes that there is no security in weaponizing plutonium. It will add to the dangers Iran lives with, not reduce them. “They’ve made a calculation,” Eleanor Clift said on the McLaughlin show. “If they go nuclear they set off an arms race they cannot win.”
Exactly. But why do we discredit Rouhani when he explains this as Tehran’s calculation?
In tones laden with sarcasm, Brian Williams told NBC viewers on Friday, “Iran’s new leadership is suddenly claiming they don’t want nuclear weapons!” Sheer sophistry. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei issued a religious edict renouncing any pursuit of nuclear weapons nearly a decade ago. It has been policy still longer back. Even Ahmadinejad asserted that nukes were against the religion, a waste of money, a source of danger for those who build them, and “the weapons of the previous century.”
At what point does healthy caution tip into destructive paranoia? Or are Iranians, somehow, never believable? This would be a no-hope position.
4. Rouhani is by his own description mindful of the need to rebuild from the rubble Ahmadinejad made of Iran’s foreign relations. It is another sound, promising ambition. The damage has been extensive, but nowhere as much as in the non-relationship with Israel and the appalling holocaust-denying image that landed on Iranians.
Ahmadinejad was an atavistic freak in this respect. During an emergency meeting of Muslim leaders in 2006, he said the destruction of Israel would solve the area's problems. The embarrassment and regret are obvious—and run far beyond Rouhani’s circle. It is blindness to tar the new leader with this brush.
To be accepted: Rouhani condemns the Nazi atrocities but is not comfortable excluding others—Catholics, gays, Gypsies, Communists, people of color—as the term “holocaust” implies. To be accepted: The new Iranian leader draws a line between the dreads of the mid–20th century and the fate of the Palestinians. So do millions of others within and outside Iran. To be accepted, finally: Rouhani asks for no universal agreement on these two thoughts, and they are not at issue as he tries to reconstruct Iran’s relations with the outside world.
5. Rouhani wants Iran to claim a square on the global game board. Pariah status is no longer tolerable. In this he represents the vast majority of Iranians.
Domestically, Rouhani is, again, playing good politics. He represents the conclusion among the clerics that to retain power they must better reflect the aspirations of an increasingly sophisticated, restive citizenry. If this were East Asia we would say he is “riding the tiger.”
Externally, Rouhani wants to construct a region where Iran can use the influence it is destined to acquire and remove the menace of tension and threat, even as Iran has contributed to it. More broadly, he wants Iran to be at the table in cases such as Syria, assuming a conference convenes in Geneva.
In two weeks, Rouhani’s ministers will meet Secretary of State Kerry, Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, and others. They are to deliver the first concrete plans for a thorough rapprochement. We will see and know things.
In the meantime, to look at a new, even unexpected dynamic in the Middle East from Rouhani’s perspective involves no risk. It is good diplomacy, among much else.
Failure to consider Rouhani’s view of things will come to precisely that: failure.