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October 8, 2013 4:47 pm

WSJ Columnist: U.S. Should Heed Rouhani’s Advice From 1986, Learn to Negotiate Hard With the Ayatollah

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Irani President Hassan Rouhani at the United Nations. Photo: Screenshot.
Irani President Hassan Rouhani at the United Nations. Photo: Screen shot.

In The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, Bret Stephens, foreign-affairs columnist and deputy editorial page editor, wrote a scathing indictment of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s negotiating record and called for the U.S. to follow the Iranian leader’s advice on how to handle Ayatollah Khamenei.

“How depressingly predictable: Iran lies and prevaricates—about the breadth of its nuclear programs; about their purpose; about the quality of its cooperation with U.N. nuclear watchdogs; about its record of sponsoring terrorism from Argentina to Bulgaria to Washington, D.C.; about its efforts to topple Arab governments (Bahrain) or colonize them (Lebanon); about its role in the butchery of Syria; about its official attitude toward the Holocaust—and the administration thinks priority No. 1 is proving its own good faith,” Stephens wrote.

He recounted a story from 1986 about Rouhani giving advice to an undercover Israeli agent, posing as a U.S. official, during Iran’s attempts to trade the release of Americans held hostage by Iranian-backed proxies in Lebanon for American missiles to use against Iraq.

“The missiles were provided but the hostages were not—a victim, by some accounts, of hard-line opposition within Iran to the more pliable course advocated by Mr. Rouhani,” Stephens recalled.

He continued:

“So it goes with Western outreach to Iranian moderates: It always fails, though whether it’s on account of the moderates being duplicitous or powerless is a matter of debate. Maybe Mr. Rouhani isn’t ‘a wolf in sheep’s clothing,’ as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says. Maybe he’s a sheep among wolves.”

“If so, he’s a very canny sheep. ‘If you don’t bare sharp teeth before [Ayatollah] Khomeini,’ he advised [the Israeli agent], ‘you’re going to have troubles all over the world. If you threaten him with military force, he’ll kiss your hand and run.'”

“Elsewhere in the conversation, Mr. Rouhani suggested a strategy for getting the hostages released. ‘If for instance, you said to [Khomeini], ‘You must release all of the hostages in Lebanon within five days. If not—we’ll deal you a military blow and you will be responsible for the results,’ do it, show that you are strong, and you will see results.'”

“And there was this: ‘If we analyze Khomeini’s character, we will see that if someone strong stands opposite him, he will retreat 100 steps; and if he is strong and someone weak faces him, he will advance 100 steps. Unfortunately, you have taken a mistaken approach. You have been soft to him. Had you been tougher, your hand would be on top.'”

“Khomeini is long dead, but the regime’s mentality of yielding only to intense pressure and credible threats of force remains the same,” Stephens concluded.

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