09/24/2013 06:03 pm ET Updated Nov 24, 2013

The Iranian Tango: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

In what seems like a peace-speeches onslaught led by President Hassan Rouhani, the Iranians are suddenly displaying a gentler and more peaceful face. Last Tuesday President Rouhani announced that he was interested in diplomatic negotiations over Iranian nuclear policy with the permanent members of the UN Security Council and perhaps with the U.S. -- commonly referred to by his predecessor as the Great Satan. Two bold steps forward.

Then, on September 22, 2013, in an address at the annual parade marking the anniversary of the outbreak of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, Iran paraded 12 Sejil missiles -- domestically produced surface-to-surface missiles -- and 18 Ghadr North Korean missiles, with a nominal range of up to 2,000 kilometers. If these missiles are genuine and operational, Iran can target large portions of the Near East, Israel, and Southeastern Europe, along with US and NATO bases and deployed forces in Turkey and Central Asia. The public deployment of these missiles at this time means: One step back. Tango.

President Hassan Rouhani insisted that the missiles were intended for defensive purposes only. "In the past 200 years, Iran has never attacked another country," he said. "Today, too, the armed forces of the Islamic Republic and its leadership will never launch any aggressive action in the region. But they will always resist aggressors determinedly until victory." Historically, Rouhani was right. Iran never attacked its enemies directly, but has always used terrorist cronies such as Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad when it had to settle a score, and then deny any involvement. The message Rouhani was subtly sending was that even if Iran had a nuclear bomb, it'd be used to defend Iran, not attack others. Simply, Iran could use a nuke as a political and psychological weapon to terrorize its adversaries' populations and pressure their governments.

Since 1979, Iranian foreign policy has sought to "export the Islamic Revolution." In plain language, this means becoming the king of the block and controlling the oil reserves of the Gulf States, including Saudi Arabia. With Iranian hands on the oil spigots of 25 percent of the world's oil supply, they could bring the U.S. and the rest of the Western world to their knees, and with a nuclear arsenal under its wings, nobody could attack Iran. Would the U.S. have attacked Iraq when Saddam invaded Kuwait, if Iraq had been nuclear?

So why the Iranian peace attack, and why now?

There are two answers: the debilitating economic sanctions, and the advanced stage of Iran's nuclear weapons program that can no longer be stopped or reversed.

The economic sanctions have badly affected Iran's economy. Iran's central bank announced last July that the annual rate of inflation was 35.9 percent. However, Western observers estimate the rate to be at least twice that. According to the International Monetary Fund, the Iranian economy had in 2012 a negative growth rate of 1.9 percent, and was expected to have a negative growth rate of 1.3 percent this year. Iran has an above 20 percent unemployment rate among those 29 years old and younger. The Iranian leadership is not blind to the brewing popular uproar in Iran or to the revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, and the civil war in Syria. These earth-shattering events did not erupt overnight as a result of these countries' foreign policy. The people revolted because they had no jobs, no food, and no future. Iran could be next, and its leaders know it.

Iran can now afford to be smiling at the U.S. and make transparency promises that sound like music to President Obama.

In terms of nuclear development, Iran is almost there. It doesn't have to actually assemble a bomb, just be a touch of time away. And that time is now. Iran currently has several hundred new generation centrifuges that enrich uranium four times faster than their older model. After Iranian leaders reach an agreement with the West over transparency, they could find an excuse to renege on the agreement, spin all the centrifuges nonstop, and within two months end up with enough nuclear material to use in a nuclear bomb. There's also a greater risk, little-noticed publicly, to the Iranian nuclear program ability to enrich uranium. In six months of enrichment it could produce 200 Kg. of uranium, from which it could prepare nuclear fuel rods. These could be transferred to the Arak nuclear reactor which, aided by heavy water, could produce enough plutonium for a nuclear bomb. That would enable the Iranians to be very close to nuclear capacity but not within it, a red line drawn by the U.S. and Israel. Why would the Iranians renege? For example, if the sanctions were not removed fast enough.

The Iranian plan is not risk-free for the current regime. In a first salvo shot across the Iranian president's bow, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) warned, "The IRGC would support initiatives that were in line with national interests and strategies set forth by Iran's theocratic leader and highest authority, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei." Not a subtle hint to Rouhani: Don't move forward with your initiative without getting our leader's approval first. The 125,000-strong IRGC has a military budget greater than that of the Iranian regular armed forces, and it is loyal only to Khamenei.

The Iranian peace offensive is a boon for President Obama's limping foreign policy. After the much-criticized, hesitant U.S. policy toward Syria, Iran could be an arena where the administration could score points. However, the U.S. will be met with the world's best negotiations marathon runners. These negotiations would give Iran more time to spin the centrifuges, while they are spinning the media and the world's leaders. And if the U.S. reverses Teddy Roosevelt's maxim "Speak softly and carry a big stick" -- then the Iranians will soon have a nuclear bomb.