While the tumultuous events in Egypt and Syria have focused the public's attention on civil strife in those countries, Iran remains the biggest threat to the United States in the Mideast, says former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman.
"The most dangerous challenge to U.S. national security brewing in the region continues to be the Iranian regime's pursuit of a nuclear-weapons capability," Lieberman, who served in the Senate as both a Democrat and an independent, writes in The Wall Street Journal
The most important recent development in Iran is last month's election of Hasan Rouhani as president and reaction to that result has generally been divided in two ways, says Lieberman, now senior counsel at the law firm of Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman.
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"The first sees the victory by Mr. Rouhani — reputedly the most moderate of the approved candidates — rekindling hope of a diplomatic breakthrough over Tehran's illicit nuclear program," he writes. "The second holds that Mr. Rouhani's election won't alter Iran's nuclear strategy."
Those holding the second view say either that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who has shown no interest in compromise, is Iran's true leader or that Rouhani isn't really a reformer, Lieberman says.
"There is, however, a third possibility to consider: that the Iranian regime under Mr. Rouhani will shift its international behavior, but that Tehran, rather than abandon its goal of a nuclear-weapons capability, will instead simply adopt a shrewder, more effective approach," Lieberman says.
"The risk with Mr. Rouhani is that the Iranians will adopt a smarter strategy that accepts tactical compromises at the negotiating table, but only to buy the time and space necessary to push ahead with the most important elements of their nuclear program," Lieberman wrote.
Rouhani boasted in a 2004 speech that this is exactly what he did as Iran's nuclear negotiator – "suspending enrichment as a sop to the international community, even as Iran moved forward on other fronts," Lieberman says.
"The Obama administration reportedly is interested in reaching out to Mr. Rouhani," Lieberman says. "That will be worthwhile — if the administration also quickly tests his seriousness and doesn't allow him to play for time. The U.S. and its allies should refuse to offer any sanctions relief unless Iran immediately stops all activities that could lead to a nuclear-weapons breakout."
Rouhani's election already has demonstrated one encouraging truth, Lieberman says. "The majority of Iranians clearly showed that they ranked improved relations with the rest of the world, and the economic prosperity this could bring, over nuclear weapons and a foreign policy of 'resistance.'"
Lieberman hopes Rouhani delivers on this promise. "But in light of the undemocratic and extremist character of Iran's regime, and its past patterns of behavior, we must also prepare for the worst case — that Tehran under Mr. Rouhani will become an even more devious and dangerous adversary," he says.
The Obama administration apparently already has begun to take action to engage with Rouhani. The State Department quietly offered to have bilateral talks with Iran based on "mutual respect," State Department spokesman Alan Eyre told Iran's state-run media last week, Fox News reports
. He said Iranian and U.S. officials could negotiate one-on-one or through the "P5 +1," which includes the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany.
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