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Allan Topol Headshot

Testing Iran's Change of Position

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Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, attempting to sound conciliatory, has mounted a diplomatic offensive this week at the U.N. In response, some in the United States concluded that at long last, Tehran desires a thaw in its relations with Washington and a normalization. I remain skeptical, hoping they are correct, but unwilling to make that leap for a number of reasons.

First, Mr. Rouhani does not have real authority in Iran. He and his foreign minister Zarif serve at the will of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his revolutionary guard who have repeatedly expressed implacable hatred for the United States. The last president they sent to the U.N., Ahmadinejad, bombastically expressed that hatred. There is no basis for believing that Khamenei has changed his view.

Moreover, Khamenei and Rouhani played this same game in 2003. Rouhani, in an approach to the United States, announced a suspension of nuclear enrichment. Shortly thereafter Khamenei vetoed this change of position and banished Rouhani from the circle of power. It is reasonable to wonder whether history is repeating itself.

Second, Iran has, even after Rouhani's election, continued to move their nuclear weapons program forward and continued to arm Assad and Hezbollah with heavy weapons. This is more significant than the gestures that Rouhani has made, namely the release of 11 political prisoners and the tweeted New Year greeting to Jews celebrating Rosh Hashanah.

Nevertheless, we must ask why these softer words are coming now from Tehran. I believe there are a number of factors.

One is that the economic sanctions being imposed by the U.S. are having their desired effect. The Iranian economy is being crippled. Its currency is under siege. This economic turmoil is leading to unrest within the society. As we have repeatedly seen through history, economic unrest can build like steam in a covered pot of boiling water and pose a threat to the continued rule of even repressive despotic regimes.

Then, there is the fact that Rouhani's announcement of a positive change of position has occurred immediately after President Obama withdrew his threat of force in Syria in return for Syria's apparent willingness to negotiate about giving up their chemical weapons. In fact, Syria didn't even take that position directly. Russia expressed it, purportedly acting on behalf of Syria.

It is no coincidence that Rouhani's conciliatory words have come on the heels of the Syrian developments. The leaders in Tehran are very shrewd and cannot be underestimated. The lesson they might draw from Syria is that if they sound moderate, the club being wielded by the United States will be put down. Isn't that what happened with Syria? Moreover, Washington may be anxious for a reproachment with Tehran in the hope that the Iranians will lean on their client Assad to behave more reasonably with respect to a chemical weapons agreement.

The leaders in Tehran might also have concluded that they will never have an opportunity to cut a better deal with the United States than right now. They have an American president who has indicated a desire from the time he took office to improve America's relations with the Muslim world.

Obama still has a Democratic majority in the Senate which oversees foreign policy and he may not have that in another 14 months. Also, Obama is weakened from internal battles with Congress, high unemployment, a struggling economy, and unhappiness among a substantial number of Americans about Obama care. The Iranians may view him as desperate to reach a deal with them so he can point to a foreign policy success when his Democratic party goes under the knife in next year's mid-term elections.

The final factor motivating Tehran's change of rhetoric involves the continued struggle between Sunnis and Shiites in the Middle East. Many in the United States fail to appreciate the extent of the animosity between members of these two sects of Islam. Their battles have raged since the death of Mohammad in 632 AD.

Iran, the self-appointed leader of the Shiite world, is locked in a struggle with Saudi Arabia and Turkey for dominance in the Muslim Middle East. At this moment, Tehran's Shiite client, Assad, is under seize from Sunni Jihadists and secular rebels and weakened; Hezbollah is being attacked in Syria and Lebanon. Tehran would like to give extensive assistance to both of them, but that's hard to do as long as Iran's economy is being crippled by American sanctions.

With all of these factors motivating Tehran, the question becomes how should Washington respond.

First and foremost, while we should welcome Iran's softer rhetoric, we must not remove any economic sanctions until Iran has halted its nuclear developments which could lead to the production of nuclear weapons. And that must be verified by American selected experts who are given full access to all Iranian nuclear facilities.

Second, Washington should demand that Tehran halt its shipment of heavy weapons to Assad. Third, Washington should demand that Iran stop its shipment of heavy weapons to Hezbollah which destabilize Lebanon and the region. At the commencement of negotiations with Tehran, Obama should make it clear that these three actions are required before the sanctions are lifted.

Rouhani's words are evidence that the sanctions are working. We enter discussions with Tehran in a position of strength. Rouhani's soft words are intended to build pressure on Obama to yield on sanctions as he did on an attack of Syria. Please, President Obama, do not surrender your leverage until you have gotten what the world needs from Iran.