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At Davos, Hassan Rouhani's Double-Talk Undermines Iranian Charm Offensive

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DAVOS, Switzerland -- Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has been widely hailed for his dramatic engagement with the world, achieving a potential breakthrough on the nuclear crisis that has long stood as a principal threat to global security. Yet his address here this morning at the World Economic Forum lent credence to another view: That of a shameless opportunist who employs words of peace while prosecuting war.

Pressed by World Economic Founder Klaus Schwab to respond to the humanitarian crisis in Syria and asked specifically what he might do to ease it, Rouhani oozed sympathy.

“Millions of innocent people have been killed, injured and made homeless as refugees,” the president said. “In this cold winter, this only adds to the misery. It is a miserable situation and very sad. “

But then he added words that were the only ones that mattered as a sign of what Syria’s war-battered people may expect: More misery, and in part because of Iran.

“We also have to be sad and concerned about the presence of terrorists, and these terrorists pouring into Syria are ruthless killers,” Rouhani said. “This is indeed sad. Iran believes that all of us, everyone, should first put a stop to the bloodshed in Syria and later push the terrorists out of Syria.”

There are indeed terrorists pouring into Syria, extremist Islamists who employ tactics such as beheadings in pursuit of imposing Shariah law. Anyone concerned about Syria must be deeply unsettled by the realities of the opposition fighting to end the rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, one increasingly powered by groups affiliated with al-Qaeda.

And yet, what of the Assad regime itself, whose sustenance accrues more than a little to the support of Iran via its proxy military Hezbollah, which dominates Lebanon and has deployed large numbers of troops into neighboring Syria in support of the government?

What of the recent reports of systematic torture employed by Assad against his opponents, to say nothing of the confirmed unleashing of chemical weapons last summer?

As is typically the case at an event long on expressions of mutual agreement and short on important details, Schwab asked about none of this, and Rouhani volunteered nil. For anyone paying attention to the conflict in Syria -- a land of many victims and few heroes -- Rouhani’s words of concern were hard to take.

He played a similar game in discussing Israel -- or not discussing it, as it were. Here was another word not uttered but invoked slyly by Schwab. Given the Iranian president’s oft-repeated pledge to forge peaceful relations with the planet, did this apply to every country?

“Do you include all countries?” Schwab asked for emphasis.

“That’s what I said, all the countries,” Rouhani said, as applause filled the grand arena, as if we were all witness to a historical event. Then he clarified: “countries which we have officially recognized.”

For the record that list does not include Israel, which is sometimes begrudgingly referred to as the Zionist Entity among those nations intent on its disappearance.

I rise not in defense of Israel, which has no shortage of bloodshed and strife to account for, and which has played a leading role in seeking to monkey-wrench the progress toward peace that Rouhani’s arrival has made possible. Nor do I type in defense of those Syrian rebel militias that do indeed employ tactics for which the word terrorism is apt.

But the Iranian president has bet his legacy on the notion that he brings pragmatism, human concern and above all realism to the work of developing Iran’s economy, and by forging relations with outside powers. He described his own creed as “prudent moderation.”

Pretending to be open to dealing with anyone while continuing to exclude Israel does not qualify. Neither does feigning concern for all the people of Syria while pouring fresh armaments into the tinderbox.

Rather, this sort of rhetorical sleight of hand merely serves to reinforce the image of Rouhani peddled by other imprudent non-moderates like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has dismissed Rouhani as a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

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