Beware the "reformer" smokescreen.
The Obama administration is using the election of Iran's new president-elect, Hassan Rouhani, as an excuse to consider resuming negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. Iran is cleverly running the clock, using the election of the moderate-appearing Rouhani as bait to lure the Obama administration and its European allies into another round of useless talks while Iran forges ahead to develop a nuclear arms arsenal.
Rouhani, a cleric, had served as the Supreme National Security Council chairman under Presidents Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997) and Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), and was Iran's chief nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005. He is perceived as a "moderate" compared with the other candidates who ran for president against him. However, everything is relative. Hundreds of reformist and pragmatic candidates, and all women, were barred from running. Rouhani was the last so-called "reform" candidate standing.
Denis McDonough, President Obama's chief of staff, said on the CBS program "Face the Nation" this past Sunday that he sees Rouhani's election "as a potentially hopeful sign."
For his part, Rouhani is doing all he can to stoke the Obama administration's interest in resuming talks. "The idea is to engage in more active negotiations with the 5+1, as the nuclear issue cannot be resolved without negotiations," president-elect Rouhani said during his press conference on June 17th, referring to the UN Security Council's five permanent members plus Germany.
There are "many ways to build trust" with the West, Rouhani added. "Our nuclear programmes are completely transparent. But we are ready to show greater transparency and make clear for the whole world that the steps of the Islamic Republic of Iran are completely within international frameworks." Rouhani pledged to follow a "path of moderation and justice, not extremism."
At the same time, Rouhani complained that the U.S. and European Union sanctions against his country were unfair and unjustified, and he vowed that the "period is over" for Iran to consider ending its uranium enrichment program.
"The Iranian nation has done nothing to deserve sanctions. The works it has done has been within international frameworks. If sanctions have any benefits, it will only benefit Israel. It has no benefits for others," he said.
Using Rouhani's election as Iran's next president as an excuse for the Obama administration to chase the rabbit of further fruitless negotiations is a fool's errand. Whatever negotiating position Rouhani would like to pursue, his hands are tied by Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who calls all of the shots.
As explained by an Iranian Christian leader quoted by Joel Rosenberg, author of The 12th Imam series and expert on the Middle East:
We must remember that Khamenei is the supreme power and will make all the important decisions. This includes relationship with the west and nuclear program... Khamenei and the clergy have set up a power structure so that there are layers of protection for them. They use the government as their puppet (a front) to implement their national and international wishes. But if something goes wrong, they have the government to blame for it.
In any case, Rouhani is an insider. He is reported to be very close to Khamenei and has been serving as a member of the Expediency Discernment Council, an advisory body to Khamenei. He is also a member of the Assembly of Experts, a body vested with authority to elect and remove the Supreme Leader.
"Dr. Rouhani is absolutely in the pro-regime camp. He is loyal to the Ayatollah Khamenei and is committed to obeying his wishes and orders," the Iranian Christian leader, Dr. Hormoz Shariat (known as the ' the Billy Graham of Iran'), is quoted as telling Joel Rosenberg.
Rouhani is no fan of political dissent. In July 2010, for example, he strongly denounced the Green Movement protesters who were demonstrating in support of the Arab Spring. In any event, as president, Rouhani will have little to say about how Iran's Revolutionary Guards, Ministry of Intelligence or Basij militia handle dissenters.
In terms of demeanor and rhetoric, Rouhani is expected to project a far more reasonable image than the outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Indeed, Rouhani was highly critical of Ahmadinejad and refused to serve in his administration. However, a shift in style does not mean a shift in substance.
Rouhani sees negotiations as merely a tactic to buy time in advancing Iran's nuclear program. It is worth noting that Ayatollah Khamenei had specifically requested his appointment as Iran's chief nuclear negotiator in 2003, a post he retained until Ahmadinejad came to power.
In an in-depth interview given to the Mehrnameh periodical in May 2012 to mark the publication of his book, National Security and Nuclear Diplomacy, Rouhani said that during Iran's voluntary suspension of uranium enrichment, which Rouhani negotiated with the European Union in 2003, Iran's nuclear program made major advances. He declared in the interview that no matter who is elected president of Iran, "Iran’s position on nuclear technology will not change."
Even if Iran's new president-elect Hassan Rouhani wanted to steer Iran's nuclear policies in a fundamentally different direction, which is hardly likely, he will have no power to do so. Hardliner Ayatollah Khamenei will continue to be in charge, which means no real change. Thus, the Obama administration will be wasting more precious time if it is lured by Rouhani's siren song, as Iran progresses towards achieving its ambition of a nuclear arms capability.
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