Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is the latest head-of-state to take to the pages of a major US newspaper. In today’s Washington Post, he writes:
I’m committed to fulfilling my promises to my people, including my pledge to engage in constructive interaction with the world… A constructive approach to diplomacy doesn’t mean relinquishing one’s rights. It means engaging with one’s counterparts, on the basis of equal footing and mutual respect, to address shared concerns and achieve shared objectives. In other words, win-win outcomes are not just favorable but also achievable. A zero-sum, Cold War mentality leads to everyone’s loss.
Fine words, but window dressing absent windows will not make the world a warmer place. After his stint as an Iranian nuclear negotiator, Rouhani bragged about using talks with the West to buy time for nuclear advances. That Rouhani does not have a mandate to speak on behalf of the Iranian bureaucracy should add a bit more healthy skepticism. Just after Rouhani purportedly suggested that the once-secret and underground enrichment plant at Fordo could be on the negotiating table, the head of Iran’s atomic organization said quite bluntly on the sidelines of Rouhani’s September 18 cabinet meeting that such speculation was unwarranted, and that the status of Fordo would never be changed.
The United States has a long history of negotiating with adversaries, a history I chronicle in my new book, Dancing with the Devil, which Encounter Books will publish early next year. Looking at previous negotiations with the Islamic Republic, North Korea, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and the Palestine Liberation Organization, one pattern is clear: great optimism accompanies the announcement of talks, but the process of engagement quickly becomes a substitute for its content. Remember, Iran is not (as Rouhani claims) equal to the United States: it is a pariah whose covert nuclear activities have contravened its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Safeguards Agreement, leading to repeated United Nations Security Council censures. Those UN Security Council Resolutions—nearly all unanimous—lay out the clearest path for Iran to come in from the cold.
That said, the White House should not be afraid to take ‘yes’ for an answer. And here history provides some paths for Iran to demonstrate its sincerity. After decades of pursuing war with Israel, Anwar Sadat offered a dramatic gesture to Israel—and flew to Jerusalem—to demonstrate his commitment to peace. Perhaps if Rouhani is serious that “gone is the age of blood feuds,” he can make as dramatic a gesture, or at least something that commits him to peace far more than a Washington Post opinion editorial.
We too have choices before us, and Libya offers a precedent: Against the backdrop of what he believed to be a credible military threat, the late Muammar Qadhafi chose to dismantle his unconventional weapons programs. Perhaps the combination of genuine good will from Iran and a credible threat from the US and its allies can mark a trajectory for resolving the Iranian nuclear threat. Right now, there’s little more than rhetorical evidence of either.