Why are 131 congressmen being fooled by Iran’s new president?

Cliff Smith Attorney
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In a development that has passed mostly without notice, 131 congressman recently signed a letter calling for increased engagement with Iran concerning their nuclear program in light of their new president, Hassan Rouhani’s recent election. Spearheaded by Reps. Charlie Dent (R-PA) and David Price (D-NC), both members of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, this letter is a noteworthy for its tone and fairly large number of signers, 18 of which are Republicans. Such a development reminds me of a quote by Sun Tzu:

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” 

Clearly, the authors of this letter consider Rouhani’s elevation to the Presidency significant, requiring a reexamination of our enemy. On its surface, their plea for increased engagement with Iran seems reasonable. Rouhani’s tone has been markedly different from the apocalyptic one of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Rouhani has said that “We have no other option than moderation,” and similar statements that are pleasing to Western ears. The underlying idea is that Iran’s position on issues important to the U.S., notably Iran’s nuclear program, may change.

Yet is this true? Little, if anything, has changed in Iran, with regard to who holds the ultimate power. There is no real disagreement on this. The Ayatollahs still maintain the real power. Rouhani could not have run without their say so, and can take no real action without their acquiescence.

Likewise, Rouhani’s campaign and election, to the extent it was legitimate, appears to have been for show. Rouhani’s recent pronouncements stand in stark contrast to his history. In 1999, he was in charge of a crackdown against a student uprising. Likewise, in spite of some pronouncements, he remains in favor of Iran’s nuclear program, in favor of keeping Syria’s Assad regime as an Iranian client, and generally remains a member in good standing with the radical regime that took over Iran in 1979.

But if this is true, why did Rouhani make so many allusions to peace during his campaign? After all, perhaps the sanctions and international pressure are working and they are genuinely changing their position. To answer this question, we need look no further than Rouhani’s words themselves. He once served as a nuclear negotiator for Iran, and in his writings, he has admitted that his goal in negotiations was to split Iran’s adversaries while buying time for their nuclear program to develop. Furthermore, he has bragged that their nuclear program made the most progress when they suspended enrichment of uranium, because it took the international pressure off and allowed them to focus on other technological issues. He is skilled at negotiating in bad faith and concealing his true intentions.

Little, if anything, has truly changed since the election of Rouhani. The Ayatollahs still want nuclear weapons at virtually any cost, they still hold ultimate power, and Rouhani doesn’t appear to actually be substantively different than his predecessor. Campaign promises to the contrary appear to be a façade meant to buy time and cause conflict between the regime’s opponents, just like Rouhani’s nuclear negotiations in the mid-2000’s.

To the extent Rouhani’s election means anything, it suggests the Iranian people, or at least a large segment of them, genuinely want peace. The main reason Rouhani campaigned as a moderate in the first place was placate opponents of the regime. The Ayatollahs wanted to avoid another embarrassing “green revolution.” But while the Iranian people may be changing, the Ayatollahs are not.

The real thing that has changed in the equation is America. Over a decade of conflict with radical Islam has left America war-weary and strongly supportive of peace. We have maintained that a nuclear Iran is a dire threat, but we have changed what we are willing to do to about it, hoping our opponents, rather than ourselves, have changed.

I respect the sincerity of Congressman on both sides of the isle who hope for better relations with Iran. Conflict with Iran would be bloody, brutal and expensive in terms of diplomatic and financial costs. Yet, as Sun Tzu warned, if we know neither our enemy nor ourselves, we will lose every battle. The facts suggest we face such a situation, and the results will likely be as Sun Tzu predicted.