The victory of Hassan Rouhani in June's Iranian presidential election has once again thrust the word "moderate" into the center of the agonized debate over western policy towards Tehran's nuclear program—a debate whose latest iteration centers on the implications of Russian President Vladimir Putin's planned visit to Iran next month. But what "moderate" actually means in this context remains unclear.
If the various western pundits and politicians who have embraced Rouhani are to be believed, this wise successor to the hyperbolic Mahmoud Ahmadinejad offers the best chance for a political deal over the nuclear program in years. Sure, Rouhani recently dismissed Israel as a "miserable regional country," but relative to Ahmadinejad's frequent expressions of Holocaust denial and threats to wipe the Jewish state off the map, that sounds rather, well, moderate. As Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a former Iranian official now engaged as a Princeton University research scholar, recently wrote, Iranian diplomacy under Rouhani can be expected to adopt a "professionalize[d] tone," which the U.S. should respond to with a "series of practical positive gestures."
Rouhani is smart enough to realize that winning the confidence of the outside world simply by sounding like more of a statesman than Ahmadinejad is a darn good deal. And that is where the danger lies.
For while Rouhani is certainly amenable to talking, he is far less reliable when it comes to the outcome—a final, transparent solution to Iran's nuclear ambitions—desired by the U.S. and its partners. As with the stalled Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, western policy towards Iran now places more emphasis on process—the simple act of sitting around a table – than it does upon the actual results of such parleys.
What that approach ignores, frankly, is the entrenched belief of Rouhani and his fellow mullahs that a negotiated solution to the nukes crisis is not in the interest of the regime. In strategic terms, Iran looks much stronger now than it did one year ago. Its policy of actively backing its monstrous regional ally, the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, is now paying dividends, insofar as the brutal civil war there is turning in Assad's favor. Additionally, the crisis that has enveloped ruling Sunni Islamists in countries like Egypt and Turkey has not been replicated in Iran, where mass, sustained anti-regime protests have been largely absent since 2010. Most importantly, talks with the U.S. are not the only option available to Tehran.
The last time Iran that took part in talks about its nuclear program, in Kazakhstan back in February, did not, unsurprisingly, yield any concrete results. During those negotiations, Iran received a proposal that would essentially involve a suspension of its uranium enrichment activities and greater openness towards inspection teams dispatched by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA,) a body that has consistently warned against the dangers of Iranian duplicity. In the interim, while western negotiators have anxiously awaited a response that, so far, has not been forthcoming, the Russians have gotten in on the act with a separate initiative.
The declared aim of Putin's Iran visit—the latest Russian media reports have it slated for Aug. 12 or Aug. 16—is to try and get the negotiations back on track. Close behind is another aim; Putin wants Iran to purchase Russian-manufactured S-300VM Antey-2500 air defense systems. The price tag—$120 million—is a hefty one for a country whose economy has been badly damaged by international Iran sanctions, but then the Iranian regime has never placed the needs of its citizens above its military imperatives. Purchasing such a system would undoubtedly make the prospect of a pre-emptive strike on Iran's nuclear facilities far more risky.
At the same time that the Russians weighed in, the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, who is close to the Iranian regime, offered to play the role of broker between Washington and Tehran. The advantages for Maliki are obvious, in that taking on such a task would further endear him to the Americans without alienating the Iranians. And the initial State Department reaction—"We are open to direct talks with Iran in order to resolve the international community's concerns about Iran's nuclear program," said State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell—was pretty positive. Again, this emphasis on process detracts from the far more important challenge of achieving results, thus enabling the Iranians to do what they have always done: buy time while continuing the nuclear program's development.
The only foreign politician to openly express skepticism has been Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "On Iran, it is crucial that we see a change in Iran's policy, not a change in style, but a change in substance," Netanyahu recently said.
Knowing that Netanyahu is far more isolated than, by rights, he should be in holding such a position, Iran has felt confident enough to lampoon him as a warmonger who is always crying wolf.
In fact, Netanyahu's anxieties are firmly based in reality. David Albright, the respected head of the Washington, DC-based Institute for Science and International Security, wrote in a July briefing paper that Iran "is expected to achieve a critical capability in mid-2014, which is defined as the technical capability to produce sufficient weapon-grade uranium from its safeguarded stocks of low enriched uranium for a nuclear explosive, without being detected." (My emphasis.)
Once that capability is achieved, there is no going back. Moreover, for as long as western policy is bogged down in the bizarre game of talking about talks, the Iranians have no political incentive to scale the nuclear program back. The only measure that could conceivably slow the process involves tighter Iran sanctions and a stronger effort to close down smuggling routes, and even then, there is no guarantee that the west will gain the upper hand.
As Rouhani himself said, back in 2005, "[I]f one day we are able to complete the fuel cycle and the world sees that it has no choice—that we do possess the technology—then the situation will be different." Yet here we are again, vainly hoping that this time, things will be different, that a regime that has consistently and successfully lied will somehow stop doing so.