Can Iran's President Hassan Rouhani seduce Obama?

By Anshel Pfeffer, September 24, 2013
Hassan Rouhani President of Iran (Photo: AP)

Hassan Rouhani President of Iran (Photo: AP)

“Charm offensive” is the hackneyed phrase used in recent weeks to describe the intensive PR campaign being waged by Tehran on the Western media.

Small wonder that the office of Israeli Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu could not resist responding with a cliche of his own about Iran spinning the press and spinning centrifuges that enrich uranium.

Mr Netanyahu’s problem, however, is that this is not just spin: it is a new Iranian strategy and, like all of Iran’s strategies, it requires Israel and its allies to think on their feet.

With Iran, all the usual caveats apply. Its leaders may have taken to social media with an extraordinary appetite, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei tweeting on how to have a happy marriage and recommending classics of French literature, but this is still a dictatorship blocking its citizens from Facebook.

President Hassan Rouhani may have — or may not have, depending on which source in his office you believe — wished the Jewish people a happy new year and was planning to bring the only Jewish member of Iran’s parliament with him to New York for the United Nations General Assembly this week, but the enmity towards the Jewish state remains implacable.

Iran’s leaders talk of helping to broker a peaceful solution in Syria while members of its Revolutionary Guards, along with Hizbollah, fight for Assad and supply his forces with arms. And of course, for all the talk of a diplomatic solution to the nuclear issue, there is no sign of Iran letting up in its pursuit of the bomb.

So once all those caveats have been applied, what is Iran playing at now? Of course this could all be one big show designed to throw the world off the scent while the nuclear programme continues.

However, there are also indications that the shift is not only cosmetic, that the international sanctions have seriously crippled Iran’s economy, that its support of Syria has left it isolated in the region and that President Rouhani has been given a mandate by the Supreme Leader to broker a diplomatic solution.

Of course Iran’s main objective is to remove the sanctions, and it would love to continue with its nuclear option — after all, it has spent many billions on it to date. That was the point of the sanctions — to force Iran to understand that building a bomb is not worth their while.

Whether or not Mossad is telling Mr Netanyahu that Mr Rouhani is serious, or bluffing or, quite likely, that they do not really know, Bibi’s role in the drama enfolding over the next few days at the UN in New York is very clear — he has to be the voice of skepticism, urging the world to drive an extremely tough bargain with Mr Rouhani.

That does not mean that a meeting between Mr Rouhani and Barack Obama at the UN are not in Israel’s interests. For the foreseeable future, Iran will stay Iran — a Shia theocracy challenging for hegemony in the region and Israel’s worst foe. But while regime change in Tehran still seems a distant dream, the attainable prize is the shelving of its nuclear ambitions — removing Israel’s biggest strategic nightmare. Doing so without resorting to a military strike would also be an achievement for Mr Netanyahu.

Putin wants a piece of the action
In a surprising move last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin dragged Israel’s nuclear arsenal into the Syria debate in what is being seen as an attempt to maintain his influence in the Middle East.

At a conference near Moscow, Mr Putin said: “The Syrian chemical arsenal was built as a reaction to Israel’s nuclear weapons. Israel has technological superiority, it doesn’t need to hold nuclear weapons, they only make it a target.”

It was not clear why he mentioned Israel’s nuclear capability, especially since he did not specify that Israel should relinquish its weapons as a condition for Syria dismantling its chemical arsenal.

Some observers believe that Mr Putin was trying to up the ante with the US administration over their influence in the Middle East by applying pressure on the main US ally, Israel. Others explained this as an attempt by the Russian president to “muddy the waters” before the US and Iran engage in a dialogue over the Iranian nuclear programme, which could sideline Moscow.

Last updated: 1:45pm, September 24 2013