Rouhani spreads the honey

No-one should be taken in by the Iranian president's charm offensive, but the West has strong cards to play.

Greetings to the Jewish people on the occasion of Rosh Hashanah; indications that Iran might be willing to close one of its most important nuclear facilities; nice words about President Obama's letter to him after his election; and a fifteen-minute telephone conversation between the two presidents after the UN General Assembly meetings - what is Hassan Rouhani up to?

Most of the commentators, at least those who are not entranced by his charm offensive, assume that he is being totally hypocritical, pretending to be the moderate reformer that he manifestly is not, but taking a different tack from his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was unceasingly insulting and hostile. In the words of the well-known folk wisdom, "You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar".

According to this line of thought, the means are different but the goal is the same: to complete preparations for the production of nuclear weapons without being effectively prevented from doing so. They point out that Rouhani was Iran's nuclear negotiator precisely during the time when Iran made its most significant advances towards acquisition of the bomb.

All this is correct. Rouhani is not a "moderate reformer" and his manner is undoubtedly a ruse intended to disarm the naive, including the U S president, and it is true that in any case he cannot take any radically different measures without the authorization of Supreme Leader Khamenei who shows no signs of changing his mind on nuclear weaponry.

But all this conventional wisdom overlooks one very significant fact: Rouhani is terrified about the economic/financial situation that Iran is in, and which he inherited from Ahmadinejad without knowing the severity of the problems. As detailed in a previous column, Iranian exports are down by half, and the government budget will have to be cut by thirty percent! A populace already hurting will soon become desperate and then rebellious, with economic motivations added to the political disillusionment of the urban middle class and unrest among the minority ethnic population, which makes up a full one-half of the population of Iran.

In other words, Rouhani MUST get sanctions removed, or at least greatly modified, especially financial sanctions, or he is facing the prospect of widespread unrest and possibly an "Arab Spring" type of uprising. Everything he has done so far has been colored by that perception, including naming an economic cabinet made up of real economic experts, not clueless clerics.

What this means, or should mean, for the West, for the United States, and for Israel, is that Iran is vulnerable and that the high cards are in their hands and should be played to the utmost to force real nuclear shutdown, or alternatively the sanctions squeeze should be tightened even further.

Unfortunately (fortunately for him) we are dealing with an American president who is desperate to accomplish "something" to justify the ridiculous Nobel peace prize he was awarded in 2009. Witness all the effort put into the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that everyone know will go nowhere, and his immediate, enthusiastic embrace of Russian president Putin's initiative on the Syrian regime's chemical weaponry.

President Rouhani's "honey" may indeed work as he intends. If so, it will be to the detriment of the West, the United States, the Gulf States. Saudi Arabia, and Israel. Keep all fingers crossed.

Norman A. Bailey, Ph.D., is Adjunct Professor of Economic Statecraft at The Institute of World Politics, Washington, DC, and a researcher at the Center for National Security Studies, University of Haifa.

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on September 29, 2013

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2013

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