According to the Obama administration and most of the news media, this week’s visit by Iranian President Hasan Rouhani to New York to address the U.N. General Assembly provided more evidence that he is a moderate who wants to improve relations with the West and resolve international concerns about the Iranian nuclear program.
Looking over Rouhani’s actions and statements this week, there are new questions about Rouhani’s intentions. There also appears to be no real change in Iran’s position on its nuclear program. Nevertheless, the Obama administration seems on the verge of making the same mistakes in dealing with Iran that it made in 2009.
Rouhani is certainly very different from his bombastic predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The new Iranian president understands the West and is media savvy. This is not surprising since he did his graduate studies in Scotland and speaks fluent English.
The new Iranian president’s performance in New York was masterful. He called for tolerance in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly, pledged Iran will never pursue nuclear weapons, and said his country poses no threat to the world or the region.
He had a mesmerizing effect on U.S. journalists who gushed over his politeness and apparent moderation and could not bring themselves to report his hard-edged remarks, such as comments that were strongly critical of Israel and his condemnation of “shortsighted interests of warmongering pressure groups” in the United States.
President Obama addressed the U.N. before Rouhani. The president made predictable statements about the Syrian chemical weapons issue and vague comments about trying to restart the Arab-Israeli peace process. However, the focus of the speech was Iran and Mr. Obama’s hopes for a diplomatic breakthrough.
I support new diplomatic talks with Iran as long as they hold Iran accountable and do not require the United States and its European allies to compromise their principles. President Obama’s U.N. speech did not give me confidence this will be the case.
Consider the following passage from President Obama’s U.N. General Assembly speech.
“The United States and Iran have been isolated from one another since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. This mistrust has deep roots. Iranians have long complained of a history of U.S. interference in their affairs, and America’s role in overthrowing an Iranian government during the Cold War. On the other hand, Americans see an Iranian government that has declared the United States an enemy, and directly — or through proxies — taken Americans hostage, killed U.S. troops and civilians, and threatened our ally Israel with destruction.”
I’m troubled by these comments because they reflect the same kind of moral equivalency by liberal academics during the Cold War on the conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States. The United States has nothing to apologize for to Iran nor do our Cold War policies justify Iran’s support of terrorism and nuclear weapons.
Moreover, the main reason the Iranian regime hates America is because it rejects Western culture due to religious extremism and its religious-based power ambitions. It is unfortunate that five years into his presidency, Obama still cannot bring himself to use the words “radical Islam” in discussing the threat from Iran and terrorist groups like al-Qaida.
President Obama’s comments also trivialized the fact that Iran is an active state sponsor of terror, almost as if this is a debating point that can be dropped for some concession by Tehran.
Only last April, Canadian authorities foiled a terrorist plot to blow up a train enroute to New York from Toronto. The plot was backed by al-Qaida terrorists in Iran.
Two years ago, Obama officials announced that they had prevented an Iranian-backed terrorist plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States by blowing up a Washington, D.C., restaurant.
In mid-2011, the U.S. Treasury Department accused a Syrian named Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil of being a “prominent Iran-based al-Qaida facilitator” operating in Iran under an agreement between al-Qaida and the Iranian government.
There have been at least half a dozen Iranian plots to kill American, British, and Israeli diplomats around the world over last two years. Iran is providing weapons and snipers to the Assad regime in Syria. It also is collaborating with North Korea on developing ballistic missiles and possibly nuclear weapons.
It also is worth nothing that despite the election of Rouhani, the man who has held ultimate power in Iran since 1989 — Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei — is still in control of the country.
In his U.N. speech, Rouhani followed President Obama’s lead by belittling critics of Iran as irrational and characterized them as Iran-phobic, Islamo-phobic and Shia-phobic. He condemned Western sanctions as a form of violence against Iran and ignored the reasons for these sanctions — Iran’s defiance of Security Council resolutions that required it to halt uranium enrichment and cooperate with U.N. nuclear inspectors.
The Obama administration set itself up for Rouhani’s snub of Obama when he refused to agree to a photo-op handshake. Obama officials indicated to the news media that they believed a brief meeting or handshake between the two leaders would take place.
They should not have been so certain of this. Iran has a history of refusing to meet with U.S. officials. Iranian President Khatami refused to meet with President Bill Clinton at the United Nations in the 1990s. When he was Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry told the press that he planned to visit Tehran to meet with Iranian officials in early 2010. The trip never took place because Iran refused to grant Kerry a visa.
The snub and President Obama’s comments reflect the naïve worldview that dominated the beginning of his presidency when Obama officials truly believed Obama’s aura as a transformational figure would charm America’s enemies, including dictators and radical Islamist groups. They were encouraged in this view by the rock star-like reception the president received during his 2009 trips to Europe and when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in November 2009 despite having no international accomplishments as president.
The Obama administration reached out to Iran and North Korea in 2009, claiming that Obama was a different kind of American president and a vast improvement over President Bush. Iran and North Korea were not impressed. North Korea responded by conducting a second nuclear test in May 2009. Iran responded by accelerating its uranium enrichment program, conducting missile tests, and ratcheting up its rhetoric against the United States and Israel.
The problem in 2009 and today is that Iranian officials don’t see much difference between Republicans and Democrats. They hated and feared President George W. Bush after the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003. Iranian officials see Obama as weaker than Bush but this does not mean they like him or the United States more. It is therefore not a surprise that Rouhani refused to shake Obama’s hand at the U.N.
The danger posed by Rouhani is that he seems to understand Obama all too well. Rouhani knows Obama has long wanted high-level meetings with Iranian officials and desperately wants to restart diplomatic talks. Rouhani is a shrewd negotiator who manipulated talks with the U.K., France, and Germany in 2003 to buy time for its nuclear program. He now appears to be setting the stage to do the same thing in new talks with the United States.
Rouhani made clear this week that Iran does not intend to give up uranium enrichment. He tried to tie any concessions on the Iranian nuclear program to Israel’s nuclear program and Israel joining the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Rouhani knows these proposals are non-starters because Israel will never admit to or give up its nuclear deterrent due to the grave security threats it faces.
In talks held in New York yesterday between Secretary Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Kerry suggested there could be quick sanctions relief if Iran can prove it is not pursuing a nuclear weapons capability. Proving this will be very difficult. Indeed, U.S. intelligence agencies continue to stick to a discredited 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that that Iran’s nuclear weapons program was halted in 2003.
Kerry appears to be promoting a dangerous approach that would allow Iran to continue to enrich uranium for a supposedly peaceful nuclear program that could be quickly converted into weapons-grade nuclear fuel. It also is a bad idea to trust Iran with nuclear technology after its many secret nuclear activities and repeated refusal to cooperate with IAEA nuclear inspectors.
Robert Zarate of the Foreign Policy Initiative has proposed a better approach. Zarate is urging Obama not to “paper over the problem of Iran’s efforts to get a rapid nuclear weapons-making capability” and to set high standards for a possible deal with Iran that includes zero enrichment, zero reprocessing, and full compliance and transparency in meeting Iran’s international obligations.
I believe the United States also must press Iran to join the ranks of civilized nations by ceasing its support of terrorism and end its missile and nuclear collaboration with North Korea.
Iran has a long way to go to answer for its belligerent behavior and its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Obama officials must realize from Rouhani’s speech and actions this week that he has shown no indications of conceding anything on the Iranian nuclear program and appears to be pursuing a sophisticated media strategy to improve his position and press the West to make concessions.
While a negotiated settlement with Iran is worth pursuing, President Obama and his diplomats must take a tough and realistic approach that holds Tehran accountable and demands significant and verifiable concessions before it receives any sanctions relief.
Fred Fleitz served for 25 years with the CIA, the State Department, and the House Intelligence Committee staff. He is currently Chief Analyst with LIGNET.com, Newsmax Media’s global intelligence and forecasting service. Read more reports from Fred Fleitz — Click Here Now.
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