Iran’s Rouhani Sure to be Sweet at U.N. — But Can a Deal be Worked Out? Even with Israel?


[Yossi Melman is co-author of the best seller Every Spy a Prince and the new history of Israeli intelligence, Spies Against Armageddon.  He is also a commentator for the 24-hour private TV news service]

This has become a tradition. Every year many world leaders gather at the United Nations headquarters in New York and address the General Assembly. Most of the speeches go unnoticed.

But the gathering this week and next may be different — and very significant — for the future of the Middle East and world peace.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be there (next week).  President Barack Obama’s speech was on Tuesday morning (Sept. 24).

But the main focus will be on a new player, Hasan Rouhani, the recently elected president of Iran. Last year Netanyahu grabbed world headlines with his dramatic speech about Iran’s nuclear program — illustrated by a simple drawing of a bomb and its fuse.

This year the star of the show is going to be Rouhani. His speech to the U.N. General Assembly is expected Tuesday afternoon (New York time) in the 4 o’clock hour.

Netanyahu will not like hearing Rouhani’s sweet words aimed at persuading the world that Iran is ready for a nuclear deal.

Yet it’s worth remembering that the reason for Rouhani being elected and now flying to New York is Israeli and American “coercive diplomacy”: a combination of tough sanctions and statements backed by threats to use military force.

For a couple of years Israel and the West have put pressure on Iran to abolish elements of its nuclear program which are clearly for military purposes. The measures used are “sticks” and “carrots.”

The sticks include threats of a military attack, diplomatic pressure, and the economic sanctions. The carrots are the incentives — mainly lifting the sanctions and recognizing Iran’s place among the nations of the civilized world — offered to Iran if it accepts the demands of the international community in regard to its nuclear program.

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Announced at the U.N. on Monday: Iran’s foreign minister, the fluent (in English) and seemingly relaxed Jawad Zarif, will discuss the nuclear issues in a meeting this week in New York with the P5+1: the foreign ministers of the Permanent 5 members of the Security Council (U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France) + Germany. It’s their first talks since a session in Kazakhstan went sour five months ago.

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The evidence that the coercive diplomacy is on the verge of success, forcing Iran to change its course, is visible in abundance.

First and utmost is the state of Iran’s economy. Its economy is weak and deteriorating by the day. Iran is prevented from selling most of its products — mainly oil, which is its main source of hard-currency income. In 2012 and 2013 Iran has lost earnings estimated at almost $100 billion. As a result its economy is in shambles.

If the trend continues, Iran’s leaders face a recipe for internal disaster. Civil protests would be likely to erupt and could eventually cost the Iranian oligarchy – a corrupt partnership between Shiite clerics and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) – their power. And the oligarchy knows it very well.

Even Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, realizes that. This is the main reason why he imposed his will over other hardline Ayatollahs and IRGC generals and agreed that the relatively moderate Hasan Rouhani could be elected president.

It’s a marriage of convenience. The purpose shared by all of them is to save the economy and the regime by persuading the world — above all, the United States — to lift the sanctions.

Rouhani, this week to take the podium at the U.N. in New York

It’s practically a struggle for survival. Toward that end, Iran has prepared to present itself as a nation ready to compromise.  Enter Rouhani.

When he took the stage at his first news conference in Tehran, the Western-educated, soft-spoken Rouhani (who holds a Ph.D. from a Scottish university in Glasgow)  declared that “if the United States shows good will and mutual respect, the way for interaction will be open.”

Respectful, perhaps even friendly, letters have been exchanged between President Obama and Rouhani.

In a recent television interview with NBC’s Ann Curry in Tehran, Rouhani said that Iran would never “seek weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons” and that he had “full power and complete authority” to strike a nuclear deal.

On the other hand, Netanyahu is very skeptical. The Israeli prime minister has not altered his four demands, outlined exactly a year ago in his impressive “red line” speech at the U.N.: Iran must stop enriching uranium at all levels; remove enriched uranium from the country; close its underground Fordow nuclear enrichment facility near Qom; and stop “the plutonium track” – the construction of its nuclear reactor near Arak.

Yet it’s clear even to the Israeli prime minister that not all the four demands will be met. Though he won’t admit it publicly, Netanyahu would settle for less.

Certainly the Iranian tone has changed, but is it a real change or just cosmetic surgery — a face lift? Will Iran really mean business? Is Rouhani ready to strike a genuine nuclear deal with the West?

Only time will tell. And time is running out. Iran is already on the verge of building its first nuclear bomb. It has the knowhow, the technology, and the materials to do it in a matter of months if it choose to do so.

Hopefully Obama will not fall into the Iranian “honey trap” and will continue the coercive diplomacy until Iran genuinely leaves its current path to a nuclear bomb.

September 23, 2013

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