The point of Hassan Rouhani’s presidency is not to persuade people that Iran can be dissuaded, through the easing or lifting of sanctions, from continuing its quest for nuclear weapons. No one, not even President Obama, seriously believes in that scenario.
In my view, the point of Rouhani is to persuade people that Iran is now “normal” enough that we shouldn’t fear it having nukes.
It’s not clear that Obama ever needed to be persuaded. He may be sufficiently callow to find it almost inconceivable that a nation state will ever again use nuclear weapons. And part of him probably subscribes to the view of many leftists that Iran is as entitled to possess nuclear weapons as Israel, and maybe even as entitled to them as the U.S.
But Obama is constrained when it comes to Iran. Above all, he needed to persuade the Israelis that he’s concerned over the prospect of a nuclear Iran. Otherwise, the Israelis might attack Iran. This constraint helped produce a sanctions regime that further constrains Obama because he lacks the power unilaterally to dismantle it.
The point of Rouhani is to change this dynamic. Obama will be less constrained if other key players come to believe that a nuclear Iran is not unacceptable. And some key players may come around to this view if they conclude that Iran has “outgrown” Ahmadinejad.
The key player is Israel. Israelis probably see a real difference between Rouhani and Ahmadinejad, but they also understand that Rouhani isn’t really in charge. And Israelis are unwilling, understandably, to tolerate any real risk that Iran might use its nukes.
But Rouhani increases Obama’s leverage with Israel. By contrasting Rouhani’s “pragmatism” with the crude dogmatism of his predecessor, Obama can make it difficult for Israel to balk at renewed negotiations, much less to attack Iran. Meanwhile, Iran can run out the clock.
Wishful thinking is powerful enough to influence even the Israelis. Nor is it entirely wishful to think that Rouhani’s presidency means Iran has become more pragmatic than it was under Ahmadinejad, and thus less likely to use nuclear weapons.
The risk to Israel remains unacceptable, though. “President change” isn’t good enough. Only regime change will suffice.
That’s why sanctions are so important. Rouhani is a roll of the dice by a regime that is losing strength due to economic impact of sanctions. He may be their last roll of the dice.
Accordingly, in the event of negotiations the U.S. approach should mirror that of our adversary. Iran will pretend to be serious about not developing nukes; we can pretend to be serious about lifting sanctions.
If, while Iran pretends, the U.S. is serious, the Israelis, one hopes, will act accordingly.