As President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu prepare to sit down later today, Obama is desperate to ease doubts on Iran. He may taste a legacy not blighted by economic downtown, Obamacare, and the Syrian civil war, but he should realize why so many are so skeptical. In my forthcoming book, Dancing with the Devil, I detail 30+ years of American outreach, Iranian rebuffs, and Tehran's insincerity. Why should Obama be very cautious now? Here are ten reasons:
Under the Islamic Republic, the presidency is about style, not substance. The Supreme Leader is the deputy of the Messiah on Earth and sets policy. Here's a primer on how Iranian decision-making is made. Simply put, if you want to understand the relative power President Rouhani has in the Iranian system, think about the secretary of agriculture in the United States.
"It's the Economy, Stupid!" A desire for rapprochement with the United States doesn't motivate Iran's apparent about-face, but rather a desire to ease sanctions. Earlier this month, Iran's Statistical Center acknowledged that the Iranian economy had shrunk 5.4 percent over the past year. Rouhani wants sanctions relief plain and simple.
What is there really to negotiate? The United Nations Security Council has passed multiple unanimous or near-unanimous resolutions demanding a complete cessation of uranium enrichment. The resolutions were not meant as the starting point for negotiations. It would be quite a gift to the Iranians that Obama would treat them as such.
Has the Supreme Leader really changed his tune? The Supreme Leader has spoken about the need for "heroic flexibility," but what does that exactly mean? No guessing is necessary, because the Iranian regime has explained things for us. Simply put, the Supreme Leader has blessed a change in tactics, not policy.
But what about the nuclear fatwa? On September 27, Obama declared, "Iran's supreme leader has issued a fatwa against the development of nuclear weapons [and] President Rouhani has indicated that Iran will never develop nuclear weapons." The problem — that nuclear fatwa doesn't exist.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the Supreme Leader's Praetorian Guard, hasn't changed its tune. The ideological army remains financially and politically independent of Rouhani. Speaking on multiple Iranian news shows against the backdrop of Rouhani's pirouette, IRGC-Navy head Ali Fadavi bragged that the Americans are on the defensive. "It is our ability that has forced the Americans to change their military strategy after nearly 200 years," he gloated. Obama's Syria deal only proves America's weakness, he explained. "Before any assault, they must measure its costs, and this cost is great, so the enemy gives up. This is the ability of deterrence… America needs legislation to enter into any war, and we know that they will not be able to obtain this approval in the case of a war with Iran."
Why not take Rouhani at his word? Rouhani was a nuclear negotiator between 2003 and 2005, during President Mohammad Khatami's second term. Western diplomats saw him as flexible, because he voluntarily suspended nuclear enrichment at that time. What they ignore is the reason why. Rouhani later explained that he feigned flexibility in order to ease the rush to sanctions and because Iran needed to install new centrifuges. Later, Rouhani bragged that it was because of his strategy that Iran had advanced so far. Not only is Obama getting played by Iran, but he's getting played even after Rouhani published his game plan.
If Rouhani is sincere, why rebuff Obama? There's a "Sex in the City" episode (I'm told), in which Carrie believes her love interest "Mr. Big" is keeping a secret. "Am I the ugly girl?" she asks. By talking on the telephone with Obama but refusing to be seen in public with him, Rouhani is making Obama the ugly girl on the world stage.
Be wary of spoilers. In 1998, against the backdrop of the so-called "Dialogue of Civilizations," 13 American businessmen travelled to Iran to explore new opportunities. Their bus was attacked by Iranians chanting "Death to America." So long as the Supreme Leader hasn't dropped his enmity toward America, the bad guys will win. Obama shouldn't assume they're outliers; they are not. Rather, they are part of an elaborate game of good cop-bad cop. We'd love to give more, Rouhani might explain, but I've got my own hardliners to worry about. Never mind that behind the scenes, he's funding them.
Iran's behavior hasn't changed. As Obama heart palpitated at the thought that Rouhani had actually accepted his call, the Islamic Republic was busy hanging Kurdish dissidents. Baha'is remain targets for violence and discrimination simply because of their faith. Mohammad Javad Zarif, Secretary of State John Kerry's interlocutor, might tweet Rosh Hashanah greetings but he ignores the Jews his own regime has "disappeared" for no other reason than their faith. The Qods Force continues to wreak havoc around Syria and the Islamic Republic continues to undermine stability in Lebanon, Bahrain, and the Gaza Strip. If Iran really wants to come in from the cold, let's see a real change rather than just a rhetorical one.