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A Pragmatic Mullah
Bret Stephens
June 19, 2013
"There's a sucker born every minute" is one of those great American phrases, fondly and frequently repeated by Americans, who tend to forget that it was said mainly about Americans. In the election of Hassan Rohani as Iran's president, we are watching the point being demonstrated again by someone who has demonstrated it before.

Who is Mr. Rohani? If all you did over the weekend was read headlines, you would have gleaned that he is a "moderate" (Financial Times), a "pragmatic victor" (New York Times) and a "reformist" (Bloomberg). Reading a little further, you would also learn that his election is being welcomed by the White House as a "potentially hopeful sign" that Iran is ready to strike a nuclear bargain.

All this for a man who, as my colleague Sohrab Ahmari noted in these pages Monday, called on the regime's basij militia to suppress the student protests of July 1999 "mercilessly and monumentally." More than a dozen students were killed in those protests, more than 1,000 were arrested, hundreds were tortured, and 70 simply "disappeared." In 2004 Mr. Rohani defended Iran's human-rights record, insisting there was "not one person in prison in Iran except when there is a judgment by a judge following a trial."

Mr. Rohani is also the man who chaired Iran's National Security Council between 1989 and 2005, meaning he was at the top table when Iran masterminded the 1994 bombing of the Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires, killing 85 people, and of the Khobar Towers in 1996, killing 19 US airmen. He would also have been intimately familiar with the secret construction of Iran's illicit nuclear facilities in Arak, Natanz and Isfahan, which weren't publicly exposed until 2002.

In 2003 Mr. Rohani took charge as Iran's lead nuclear negotiator, a period now warmly remembered in the West for Tehran's short-lived agreement with Britain, France and Germany to suspend its nuclear-enrichment work. That was also the year in which Iran supposedly halted its illicit nuclear-weapons' work, although the suspension proved fleeting, according to subsequent U.N. reports.

Then again, what looked to the credulous as evidence of Iranian moderation was, to Iranian insiders, an exercise in diplomatic cunning. "Negotiations provided time for Isfahan's uranium conversion project to be finished and commissioned, the number of centrifuges at Natanz increased from 150 to 1,000 and software and hardware for Iran's nuclear infrastructure to be further developed," Seyed Hossein Mousavian, Mr. Rohani's spokesman at the time, argues in a recent memoir. "The heavy water reactor project in Arak came into operation and was not suspended at all."

Nor was that the only advantage of Mr. Rohani's strategy of making nice and playing for time, according to Mr. Mousavian.

"Tehran showed that it was possible to exploit the gap between Europe and the United States to achieve Iranian objectives." "The world's understanding of 'suspension' was changed from a legally binding obligation . . . to a voluntary and short-term undertaking aimed at confidence building." "The world gradually came close to believing that Iran's nuclear activities posed no security or military threat. . . . Public opinion in the West, which was totally against Tehran's nuclear program in September 2003, softened a good deal." "Efforts were made to attract global attention to the need for WMD disarmament by Israel."

And best of all: "Iran would be able to attain agreements for the transfer of advanced nuclear technology to Iran for medical, agricultural, power plant, and other applications, in a departure from the nuclear sanctions of the preceding 27 years."

Mr. Mousavian laments that much of this good work was undone by the nuclear hard line Iran took when the incendiary Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president in 2005.

But that's true only up to a point. Iran made most of its key nuclear strides under Mr. Ahmadinejad, who also showed just how far Iran could test the West's patience without incurring regime-threatening penalties. Supply IEDs to Iraqi insurgents to kill American GIs? Check. Enrich uranium to near-bomb grade levels? Check. Steal an election and imprison the opposition? Check. Take Royal Marines and American backpackers hostage? Check. Fight to save Bashar Assad's regime in Syria? That, too. Even now, the diplomatic option remains a viable one as far as the Obama administration is concerned.

Now the West is supposed to be grateful that Mr. Ahmadinejad's scowling face will be replaced by Mr. Rohani's smiling one--a bad-cop, good-cop routine that Iran has played before. Western concessions will no doubt follow if Mr. Rohani can convince his boss, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, to play along. It shouldn't be a hard sell: Iran is now just a head-fake away from becoming a nuclear state and Mr. Khamenei has shown he's not averse to pragmatism when it suits him.

The capacity for self-deception is a coping mechanism in both life and diplomacy, but it comes at a price. As the West cheers the moderate and pragmatic and centrist Mr. Rohani, it will come to discover just how high a price it will pay.

This article was originally published in The Wall Street Journal. Refer to original article for related links and important documentation.

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