September 22, 2013

David Rohde: Iran's offer is real – and fleeting

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Hasan Rouhani
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Iranian President Hasan Rouhani speaks on Iranian state television recently.

The Associated Press

"They see that it would totally mobilize the Saudis and everyone else against them," he explained, "and ultimately doesn't benefit them."

Skeptics argue that Rouhani, in fact, represents no change in the regime. They say his call for renewed talks in letter exchanges with Obama, an NBC News interview and an op-ed in The Washington Post are ploys. They also dismiss the foreign minister's tweeting a Jewish New Year's greeting.

Mark P. Lagon and Mark D. Wallace, two former Bush administration officials, believe the new tone is a ruse to give Iran more time to develop a nuclear weapon.

"It is imperative that the international community not fall for this trick," they wrote in Foreign Policy last month. "No real change will occur under this theocracy. Cosmetic change is not a reason to give the regime economic relief, and the time it needs to finish its nuclear program."

Skepticism is understandable. But given Iranian hardliners' track record of using lethal force to crush uprisings, there is little chance of Khamenei and his Revolutionary Guard backers being toppled. And the debate over striking Syria showed that another American military intervention in the Middle East would be enormously unpopular in the United States.

Obama should gamble that Rouhani is what he says -- a moderate trying to outflank his country's conservatives. Not rewarding the bold public steps Rouhani has taken will undermine his fleeting authority in Iran.

If there is one lesson from Afghanistan and Iraq, it is that American military interventions allow nationalists to blame the U.S. for the plight of their country. Iranian conservatives will use Washington as a foil to bolster their own standing and discredit moderates.

Over time, it is far wiser to have Iranian moderates, not Americans, challenge Iran's hardliners. In the end, it will be Iranians who discredit their nation's theocracy, not foreigners.

Maine native David Rohde is a columnist for Reuters, a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize and a former reporter for The New York Times and Christian Science Monitor.


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