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October 1, 2013 11:29 am

Bolton: Rouhani is Playing Obama

avatar by John Bolton


President Hassan Rouhani. Photo: Iranian government.

Monday ends the worst month of the Obama presidency. The Syrian diplomatic and political debacle was bad enough, but last week at the United Nations President Obama embarked on a campaign for “progress” with Iran that will prove much more dangerous for American interests. Just as Vladimir Putin had played him for a fool over Syria, Mr. Obama was initially snubbed by Iranian President Hasan Rouhani despite frantic White House efforts to produce a handshake.

On Friday, after a brief Obama-Rouhani telephone call, Mr. Obama said that a “comprehensive solution” between countries is possible. And this despite Thursday’s meeting of foreign ministers, including Secretary of State John Kerry and Iran’s Mohammad Javad Zarif, that was little more than a photo-op.

Mr. Obama’s yearning fits smoothly into the PR campaign by President Rouhani, Iran’s new frontman. The campaign has included showcasing Iran’s only Jewish parliamentarian (a staunch opponent of Israel), offering dialogue with the West (catnip for the gullible), and a soothing Washington Post op-ed.

Separating propaganda, hype and disinformation from Iran’s real objectives is critical. Unfortunately, too many already believe that Mr. Rouhani’s election marked a substantive rather than a cosmetic policy shift. Instead of blustering about Iran’s nuclear program and threatening Israel, Mr. Rouhani has sounded conciliatory, carefully using his first weeks in office to cloud Western memories of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

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President Rouhani knows what his Western audience wants to hear. As Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator in 2003-05, he followed the same playbook, and it worked. By offering what appeared to be concessions, Iran acquired precious time and legitimacy to overcome scientific and technical glitches in its nuclear-weapons program, particularly at Isfahan’s uranium-conversion facility.

In articles and speeches, Mr. Rouhani boasted of his successes. In 2006, he taunted the West, saying “by creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work on Isfahan.” Even such open disdain has not triggered enough U.S. or European embarrassment to protect against being suckered again. Iran’s “moderates” are now targeting the Obama soft spot in Western opposition to Iran’s nuclear program, and methodically exploiting it.

In marked contrast, Mr. Obama enters negotiations gravely weakened by his Syria failures. Yet soothed by his media choir, he seems unaware how deeply he has been wounded. He confidently believes he is well-placed to treat with the ayatollahs despite a series of foreign-policy failures.

Over the past year, Mr. Obama failed in his stated objective to oust Syria’s Assad regime from power; failed to impress Assad that his “red line” against using chemical weapons was serious; failed to exact retribution when that red line was crossed; failed to rally anything but small minorities in either house of Congress to support his position; and failed to grasp that agreements with the likes of Syria and Russia prolong, rather than solve, the chemical-weapons problem.

Mr. Obama is inverting Dean Acheson’s maxim that Washington should only negotiate from strength. Even if there were some prospect that Iran could be talked out of its nuclear-weapons program, which there is not, the White House approach is the wrong way to start discussions. Given the president’s palpable unwillingness to use the military to enforce his Syria red line—let alone to answer the Sept. 11, 2012, Benghazi terrorist attack—and his paucity of domestic political support, Iran’s ayatollahs know that the president’s “all options on the table” incantation regarding their nuclear program carries no weight.

Iran undoubtedly wants relief from international sanctions, which have exacerbated decades of incompetent economic policy. But there is no evidence that the sanctions have impaired Iran’s nuclear or ballistic-missile programs. Instead, Tehran has increased its financial and military assistance to Assad and Hezbollah in Syria.

Mr. Rouhani’s strategy is clear: Lower the rhetorical temperature about the nuclear issue; make temporary, cosmetic concessions, such as allowing inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency at already-declared nuclear sites; and gain Western acceptance of its “reactor-grade” uranium enrichment. Once that goal is attained, Iran’s path to nuclear weapons will be unobstructed and within Tehran’s discretion.

Iran will demand in return that international sanctions be eased, focusing first on obtaining small reductions to signal Western “good faith.” Mr. Obama and Europe already seem eager to comply. Western diplomats will assert defensively that these concessions are merely a matter of “sequencing,” and that they expect substantive Iranian concessions. They will wait a long time. Mr. Rouhani fully understands that once sanctions start rolling back, restoring them will be hard, perhaps impossible, absent a major provocation.

Mr. Rouhani will not supply one. Instead, he will continue making on-again, off-again gestures seducing the West into protracted negotiations. Meanwhile, Iran’s nuclear-weapons and ballistic-missile programs will proceed unimpeded in unknown, undisclosed locations. This was his 2003-05 playbook.

Extended negotiations will enable Mr. Obama to argue that a “diplomatic process” is under way to resolve the Iranian nuclear threat. No phrase is more beloved at the State Department. Mr. Obama will then use this process on Israel to prevent pre-emptive military action against Iran’s nuclear program.

In time, even Hamlet came to understand that “one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.” Maybe one day President Obama will figure it out.

Mr. Bolton is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of “Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations and Abroad” (Simon & Schuster, 2007).

This article was originally published by The Wall Street Journal.

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