It’s quite amazing how receptive press and politicians alike have been to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s charm offensive. Take this recent New York Times article:
A series of good-will gestures and hints of new diplomatic flexibility from Iran’s ruling establishment was capped on Wednesday by the highest-level statement yet that the country’s new leaders are pushing for a compromise in negotiations over their disputed nuclear program.
Really? During the Ahmadinejad presidency, we heard repeatedly that the presidency was about style, not substance, and that real power rested with the Supreme Leader. That certainly was the case during the Rafsanjani and Khatami presidencies, which began with such high hopes in the West and ended with steady Iranian nuclear progress. When did Khamenei suddenly lose power to Rouhani?
Why should US journalists be skeptical? First of all, Iranian leaders have a history of making sweeping promises only to fail to deliver. The West should be especially skeptical about Rouhani, a man who once bragged about how he had used a change in tone and fake concessions in order to trick the West to advance Iran’s nuclear program. (More on Iranian strategy here.)
The cherry picking reflects poorly on American journalists. According to the New York Times’ Thomas Erdbrink, for example, the Iranians have reached out to Jews—but he omitted mention of the “missing Jews.” And while journalists cite rumors that Rouhani is willing to give up the Fordo enrichment plant, they fail to report that Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran’s atomic chief, subsequently ruled that out.
Iran wants the sanctions lifted and is willing to come to the table to achieve that objective. That’s great, and it affirms the wisdom of the sanctions regime. But there really isn’t much to negotiate yet: the UN Security Council Resolutions were the end of a multi-year process of Iranian nuclear defiance and were not meant as the starting point for talks. If Iran wants sanctions lifted, it needs to cease uranium enrichment and forfeit any illicit stockpiles. Once it does this, then sanctions can be lifted and real negotiations can begin.