To See or Not to See

Jewish Light Editorial

This week, President Barack Obama and other world leaders, including Iran’s new purportedly “moderate” President Hassan Rouhani, are gathering in New York for the annual addresses to the United Nations General Assembly. Given Rouhani’s ostensible outreach efforts since taking office, there has been intense speculation over whether the American leader will and should accept overtures from the Iranian side.

There have been two general schools of thought as to how the United States ought respond. Hard-line skeptics point out that since the theocratic Iranian revolution of 1979, so-called “moderate” presidents have proved ineffectual or duplicitous in moving the needle towards true rapprochement with the United States. This argument rests on the Iranian presidential role being largely irrelevant with the real power resting with the rabidly anti-American Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, who despite giving Rouhani the go-ahead on talks time, has always pulled back after such teases in the past. Playing the diplomatic game, from this perspective, would simply create more time and space for Iran to further its nuclear weapons program. 

Other foreign affairs observers suggest that the United States should at least test the sincerity of Rouhani’s gestures, lest we end up spurning even a slim chance of a thaw in relations. If Rouhani is even somewhat legitimate, this argument goes, guarded engagement would leave a door open for a breakthrough. Even those mainstreamers who advocate such a stance, however, generally don’t suggest taking the foot off the sanctions pedal without rapid progress and verifiable investigation.

Those in the former, hard-line camp consider any movement toward detente, even with diligent conditions, to comprise foolish optimism. Yet President Obama in recent weeks has been fond of quoting the hawkish President Ronald Reagan, who said in connection with reaching deals with the former Soviet Union, “trust, but verify,” or “trust, but cut the cards.”  


On the surface, Rouhani’s statements have sounded several right notes: He wished the Jews of Iran and the entire world a Happy Rosh Hashanah (significant, because Iran has the largest number of Jewish citizens among nations with a Muslim majority); had a conciliatory exchange of letters with President Obama, and gave a wide-ranging interview to NBC TV correspondent Ann Curry in which he repeatedly denied that Iran had any intention of developing nuclear weapons.

Such a denial, however, has been par for the course. And a hugely disappointing aspect of the Curry interview was Rouhani’s lame response as to whether he repudiates the Holocaust denial of his odious predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. “I am not a historian; I am a politician,” he said, missing an opportunity to distance himself from a radically anti-Semitic and anti-Israel view. This avoidance by Rouhani seems to reflect Iranian business as usual.

Given the mixed signals in the context of the unambiguously unhelpful past, we side with the efforts of the Obama Administration to make an effort toward extremely modest but highly guarded diplomacy. It must come without surrendering any of the hammers that are currently in place, namely, sanctions that have helped to cripple Iran’s economy, or the threat of physical force absent Iranian capitulation.

We do, however, wholly eschew any role for Iran in the current Syrian negotiations. Some have suggested Iran should be drawn in to cement Syria’s agreement in dismantling its chemical stockpile. Such an approach would create the perception of Iranian acceptance into the community of nations. Unless and until Iran forswears its nuclear weapon ambitions and has agreed to a framework of legitimate verification, inspection and testing, its rogue status must be presumed to continue.

So while we support Obama making the superficial overtures of shaking hands with Rouhani and visiting if the opportunity presents itself, we urge extreme caution and healthy skepticism. Given recent history, the chances are high of a Rouhani wolf in sheep’s clothing, or a Rouhani figurehead whose only function is to provide a smokescreen for Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions.

Additional Reading: 

•  What would talks with Iran mean for Obama, Tom Curry, NBC Politics, Sun, Sept 22,

Iran seeks to take advantage of Obama’s weakness, Dan Weil, Newsmax, quoting from Wall Street Journal editorial “From Damascus to Tehran,” Monday, September 23, (Note: Wall Street Journal is paywall-protected, so inaccessible for non-subscribers).