Hassan Rouhani and Hardliners are Playing ‘Good Cop, Bad Cop’
The theocratic regime’s officials and decision makers have deeply rooted apocalyptic beliefs. The Mullahs’ regime in Iran prepare for the return of Islamic Messiah as they slay infidels. They are asserting that Armageddon is at hand and that the Islamic regime’s followers, indeed all of Islam, must prepare for a monumental change in the world. Underestimating this radical ideology even as the Iranian regime is on its way to building a nuclear bomb will lead to dangerously wrong conclusions. [DID]
Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad had one great political talent: unifying Iran’s opponents. With his Holocaust-denial and bombastic bluster, the former Iranian president made thinking about Iran straight forward.
Since the more moderate and emollient Hassan Rouhani took over in July, it has become much harder to strike a common line on Iran, especially in the US where the White House and Congress are involved in a fierce tug-of-war over whether to impose new sanctions.
The dispute over how the US should deal with Mr Rouhani, which is likely to be one of the defining arguments of the Obama presidency, boils down to a basic disagreement over the nature of the Iranian regime and society. The White House says there is a lot of politics in Iran; Congress says there is very little.
To the White House, one of the most striking recent moments was the rapt reception that the Iranian negotiators received when they returned from Geneva two weeks ago. The young people at the airport were less interested in the details of the interim nuclear deal that had just been struck and more in the smiling photos of their politicians shaking hands with the Americans.
The election of Mr Rouhani was seen in Washington as a sign of deep dissatisfaction with Iran’s isolation and the economic hardship that sanctions have wrought. It believes there is a clear breach in Iranian politics between the hardliners and much of the rest of society.
The point of the interim deal in Geneva was not just to pause Iran’s nuclear programme. It was also designed to boost the credibility of Mr Rouhani and his US-educated advisers, in the hope they might muster the political capital to force through the concessions that would be required for a final deal. The threat of new sanctions, the administration believes, will make it much harder for Mr Rouhani to fend off his hardliners.
“It’s been said that there’s no difference between Rouhani and Ahmadi-Nejad except that [Rouhani’s] more charming,” Mr Obama said this weekend. “I think that understates the shift in politics that took place in this election . . . he also represents the desire on the part of the Iranian people for a change of direction . . . to interact with the world.”
Many members of Congress are more likely to agree with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Mr Rouhani is, in fact, a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”.
The bipartisan scorn for Iran on Capitol Hill reflects the intelligence briefings members have received for the best part of a decade that Tehran is determined to expand its nuclear programme and that this goal unites all the country’s different political factions.
To skeptical members of Congress, Mr Rouhani is a card-carrying member of the establishment that has pushed the country close to the threshold of being a nuclear power. His more moderate guise is but a tactic to fend off new sanctions and to buy some space for Iran to continue to develop its nuclear programme.
Supporters of new sanctions say they are strengthening the administration in the next round of talks, demonstrating to Iran the consequences it will face if it does not agree to a final-stage deal.
“We consistently hear about how we have to worry about the hardliners in Iran,” Robert Menendez, the Democratic senator who is pushing for new sanctions, said last week. “It seems that the Iranians get to play good cop, bad cop; Rouhani as the good cop, the hardliners as the bad cop.”
But that is where the logic of applying new sanctions now starts to fall down. Suppose the congressional view of Mr Rouhani is correct and that he is only playing for time. If that is the case, the best outcome for Iran would be for the talks to fall apart and for the US and Israel to get the blame.
After all, China, India and others were persuaded to cut their purchases of Iranian oil only because the US insisted that sanctions were necessary to get Iran to the negotiating table. If Iran can convince those countries that the US is negotiating in bad faith, the sanctions coalition could start to fray.
If Mr Rouhani really is a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”, why walk straight into his trap?
Geoff Dyer in Washington
December 11, 2013
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