Dealing with Iran
The timing appears awkward, at the very least: Just as Iran inaugurates its new and seemingly more moderate president, a man who has declared he wants to better relations with other nations, 76 United States senators have written to President Obama to demand tougher punishment on Iran’s already beleaguered economy.
Not only do the senators want the president to increase the pressure to persuade Iran to scale back its nuclear ambition, they also want Obama to publicly put military options on the table.
The letter was composed just days after the House overwhelmingly passed new restrictions on Iran’s oil, mining and construction industries. The Senate is expected to vote on the same restrictions next month.
“Until we see a significant slowdown of Iran’s nuclear activities, we believe our nation must toughen sanctions and reinforce the credibility of our option to use military force at the same time as we fully explore a diplomatic solution to our dispute with Iran,” the letter, to be delivered to the president today, stated.
But here’s the rub: Hassan Rouhani was inaugurated as Iran’s president yesterday and he appears to be almost the total opposite of the hostile-to-America man he replaced, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who took office in 2005. Ahmadinejad was openly belligerent and even insulting to the United States and its allies and appeared to relish Iran’s isolation from the west.
Since his election victory, Rouhani has repeatedly made it clear he wishes to pursue a policy of reconciliation with Iran’s critics. He has talked of increasing “mutual trust” between Iran and the rest of the world. In other words, he’s as unlike Ahmadinejad as he could possibly be and that is a welcome development.
For his part, President Obama recently declared he is open to “a whole range of measures” if Iran indeed shows the international community that it is complying with international treaties and obligations. But he carefully added that Iran must also show it is not trying to develop nuclear weapons.
Of course, Iran’s democracy is seriously hobbled by the fact that the supreme authority in Tehran lies not with the political leaders the Iranian people elected, but with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the nation’s all-powerful religious leader.
And it must be recognized that Khamenei tolerated the radical behavior of Ahmadinejad, even when he became obviously unpopular with the Iranian people. If he wants to, the ayatollah has the power to derail Rouhani’s efforts to bring moderation to Iranian politics and to improve Tehran’s relationships with Washington and other western capitals.
Achieving that goal won’t be easy. Rouhani listed three conditions for any talks of reconciliation with the United States: Americans must explicitly declare they will never interfere in Iran’s domestic affairs, acknowledge all of Iran’s undeniable rights, and abandon unilateral and bullying policies.
Those conditions would appeal to an almost universal fear among Iranians, and that is that the outside world is determined to impede their nation’s growth and prevent it from fulfilling its potential. The letter the senators sent to Obama will surely stoke these fears.
“Iran today continues its large-scale installation of advanced centrifuges,” the senators wrote. “This will soon put it in the position to be able to rapidly produce weapons-grade uranium, bringing Tehran to the brink of a nuclear weapons capability … Iran needs to understand that the time for diplomacy is nearing its end.”
But Obama still believes the best approach is diplomacy, and the election of a new and more moderate and conciliatory president of Iran would appear to bolster rather than erode that belief.