09/23/2013 07:38 pm ET Updated Nov 23, 2013

Have We Heard This Song Before?

The new face of the clerical regime ruling my homeland, Hassan Rouhani, sought to speak directly to the American people through a recent opinion piece in The Washington Post. Rouhani's op-ed was less pointed and arguably more subtle than some others that have made waves in recent weeks because - unlike Russia's Vladimir Putin writing recently in The New York Times - the smiling cleric who succeeded the much-vilified Mahmoud Ahmadinejad cares intensely what Americans think about him. Rouhani's proposed "constructive interaction" depends on it.

Rouhani argues for the need to constrain the U.S. from launching the military strikes against Syria that President Obama indicated Washington would consider as punishment for that country's use of chemical weapons against its own citizenry. Equally important, though not mentioned by Rouhani, is the clerical regime's desire to end the sanctions that have crippled Iran's economy.

The Iranian regime has been Syria's Bashar al-Assad's foremost backer -- militarily, financially and otherwise. For the clerics in Iran, Syria is a useful hedge against their immediate neighbors, allowing them to perpetrate much mischief without being formally charged. Removing that hedge not only exposes the darker side of the clerics' foreign policy, it removes their insulation against regional and Western adversaries. That is precisely why now, during the U.N. General Assembly, it is the right moment for Rouhani to try a new tactic for his regime by offering an olive branch.

The trouble is that the words and actions of the Islamist cleric couldn't be further apart. Each of the challenges Rouhani cites at the outset of his piece: "terrorism, extremism, foreign military interference, drug trafficking, cybercrime, and cultural encroachment" sound like a list of grievances, when in fact the clerical regime currently ruling Iran has been credibly and repeatedly charged with perpetrating each of these misdeeds over the past three decades. By attributing these misdeeds to "others" as well, Rouhani seeks to neutralize his regime's record of being anything but a "constructive" actor internationally.

By seeking to link the situation in Syria with that in Bahrain, however, the new Iranian president reveals himself to be more concerned with winning rhetorical points than with plainly discussing real issues. Presently, Bahrain's government is in a national dialogue with the opposition to resolve balance-of-power issues in a nation that is primarily Shi'a by population. Some have questioned whether that process is moving fast enough; nevertheless, the situation in Bahrain is a far cry from that in Syria, where more than 110,000 innocent civilians have been killed in a fratricidal war - and where the Syrian regime is benefiting from generously staunch sponsorship by Tehran and Moscow.

Rouhani's second strained comparison is drawn between international powers' positions on Syria and Iran's own nuclear program. In statesman-like terms, Rouhani asserts "to move beyond impasses, whether in relation to Syria, my country's nuclear program or its relations with the United States, we need to aim higher." As with his stated commitment to constructive engagement, the words are laudable even if the underlying substantial basis is flawed. Is Rouhani suggesting a deal here - legitimization of Iran's nuclear program in exchange for cooperation in ending bloodshed in Syria as well as Tehran's regional mischief - or is this yet another rhetorical flourish?

The trouble with reading Rouhani's op-ed is that it seems you can never really tell. As much as I would like believing the Islamist regime is on a moderating course that seeks to resolve its challenges diplomatically, as opposed to using proxy violence, regionally and against its own citizenry, history teaches us that this is not the real case. We have seen this movie before: Mohamad Khatami promised "overdue reforms" during his eight year tenure but was undercut by powers that really rule Iran - the Supreme Council, headed by Ayatollah Khamenei. The same was true in the 1990s under the "pragmatic cleric" the world was promised in Hashemi Rafsanjani. Yet this spring Mr. Rafsanjani was embarrassingly disqualified as a presidential candidate while Mr. Khatami was firmly discouraged from even considering a run.

What Rouhani fails acknowledge in his piece is the economic toll the international sanctions are taking on my compatriots in Iran - citizens that are rightfully disappointed with the clerical leadership it has had for 34 years. With inflation exceeding 40 percent and unemployment beyond measure, a rising generation is demanding more of life than the ruling clerics have proven capable to offer.

As ordinary Iranians witness billions from their public funds channeled externally to prop up the Hezbollah and Bashar Assad, domestically they watch with disgust as news of billion dollar corruption cases against the regime's most favored actors become harder to suppress. Today, Iranians have every reason to demand an accounting of their national revenues and that will be the clerical regime's real challenge the moment its tactics of fear and oppression are peeled back for the world to see. If indeed Rouhani's pledge for reform is real: even if the regime can afford to project power -- hard or soft - abroad, the last thing it can afford today is real transparency at home.

"Expressing what one wants requires ... courage" Rouhani writes. I agree; indeed millions of Iranians today agree. We want an Iran that respects the will and the interests of all its people, and also an Iran that is a constructive actor in resolving the searing conflicts of the Mideast - not an Iran that underwrites, instigates and causes them.