If you held a popularity “applause meter” to test reaction to United Nations speeches, the cheers for the new Iranian president would drown out the Israeli prime minister. President Hassan Rouhani’s conciliatory words, coupled with the round of interviews during his stay in New York, were balm for an anxious world.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on the other hand, would have none of it. He warned that Rouhani is a loyal servant to a regime committed — and getting close — to building nuclear weapons. “A wolf in sheep’s clothing,” he called the affable Iranian president. It was jarring, to see the fiery Netanyahu fulminating against Rouhani, the bearded, smiling, grandfatherly Iranian representative, his country’s new and improved face to the world.
Surely, after years of listening to former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his crazed anti-Semitic rants, after years of worrying about nuclear weapons, about threats of war, and the “promise” of a world without Israel, the world was ready for a change of tone from Iran.
The question, of course, is not whose words are more soothing, but whose are true?
Is Iran really ready to resolve its differences with the West, with the rest of the world? Or is it all a ruse, a ploy to gain time until Iran’s banned nuclear program makes it to the edge of a nuclear weapon; until it reaches “breakout capability,” the ability to assemble a nuclear weapon in a very short time, with all the components ready for the moment the order is given to build a bomb?
When dealing with Iran, it is important to always remember the president is not the top authority in the country. The final decision-maker is the Supreme Leader, now Ayatollah Ali Khamanei. And there is no question that Rouhani has a long track record as a loyal follower of the Supreme Leader. Rouhani was allowed to run for president, and allowed to win, only because Khamanei permitted it.
Two key questions immediately come to mind when one listens to Rouhani’s new tone. First, is he sincere? Or, as Netanyahu warns, is he trying to fool the West?
If he is sincere, the next questions are: Does his move for reconciliation and flexibility have the backing of Khamanei? Does it reflect a decision by the Supreme Leader to bring an end to the conflict, to forego nuclear weapons in order to stop the economic sanctions that are crippling Iran’s domestic economy?
We do not know the answer to either of those questions.
So far, Iran’s new administration has shown a dramatic transformation in tone. But nothing has changed in the nuclear program. Uranium enrichment is continuing at a faster pace than ever in several facilities. A plutonium reactor is under development in Arak. And efforts to develop long-range missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons have not stopped. Besides the sweet talk, there is no concrete sign of progress.
Still, the world cannot simply ignore Iran’s extended hand. After all, the objective of the sanctions was to persuade Iran to relent.
Khamanei may be standing back, watching to see what Rouhani can accomplish. He — they — may want to see how much they need to give up in order to gain relief from the sanctions.
For the G5+1, the countries negotiating with Iran, Netanyahu’s thundering denunciations of Iran’s motives are helpful. The “good cop, bad cop” routine works, especially because it is not an act. Netanyahu truly feels he is responsible for preventing another Holocaust.
Israelis — and most of their Arab neighbors — are deeply concerned that Iran may fool the West. They worry that Rouhani’s soothing words will lull the international community into complacency and run out the clock. But if Iran really intends to cease defying the world on the nuclear issue, it could quickly stop work on its plutonium reactor. It could give full access to all its facilities to international inspectors, as it is supposed to do by its treaty obligations. If it refuses to do that quickly, the mask will be off.
The irony is that no people would be happier than the Israelis if Netanyahu is proven wrong. A nuclear-armed Iran would alter the balance of power in the Middle East and pose a grave threat to the region and the world. But no country is more threatened than Israel.
Nobody would be more relieved by the end of Iran’s nuclear weapons program than the Israelis would — and that, believe it or not, includes Netanyahu.