Monday, July 29, 2013

Mideast Media Sampler 7/29/13: New York Times Still Hearts Iran's Hassan Rouhani

by David Gerstman, contributing blogger at Legal Insurrection

Getting to sort of know you

The New York Times published a rousing tribute to incoming Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, President-Elect Stirs Optimism in Iran and West. The profile starts with an anecdote:
Bogged down in faltering nuclear talks with the European powers nearly 10 years ago, Hassan Rouhani did something that no Iranian diplomat before or since has managed to do.


He took out his cellphone, say Western diplomats who were there, dialed up his longtime friend and associate, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and convinced him that Iran needed to suspend nuclear enrichment. The call by Mr. Rouhani, who was elected president in June and will take office next week, resulted in an agreement in October 2003, the only nuclear deal between Iran and the West in the past 11 years.

“Rouhani showed that he is a central player in Iran’s political establishment,” said Stanislas de Laboulaye, a retired director general of the French Foreign Ministry, who was a member of the European delegation during the talks between 2003 and 2005. “He was the only one able to sell something deeply unpopular to the other leaders.”
Hassan Rouhani
Hassan Rouhani -- New York Times favorite
moderate Iranian Credit: Wiki Commons

The agreement was reported at the time, IRAN WILL ALLOW U.N. INSPECTIONS OF NUCLEAR SITES.
In a news conference with the three ministers, Hassan Rowhani, a powerful middle-level cleric who has emerged as Iran’s chief negotiator during the current crisis, said the one-and-a-half-page agreement would first have to be approved by Iran’s elected Parliament.

He emphasized that the suspension of uranium enrichment would be for an ”interim period.”

In Washington, the State Department reacted skeptically to the agreement, with officials privately voicing concerns that Tehran would not fully comply. Officials there only grudgingly praised the work of their European colleagues.
But as the report goes on to explain:
In making the pledges, Iran seems to have been motivated primarily by a fear of international isolation and sanctions. Last month, in a vote that united Americans, Europeans and others, the 35-nation governing board of the International Atomic Energy Agency ordered Iran to prove by Oct. 31 that it has no secret weapons program or face unspecified consequences at the Security Council.
In other words, shortly after the United States invaded Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein, the IAEA, then under the friendly leadership of Mohammed el Baradei, found that the Iranians had been cheating and could be subject to penalties for their subterfuge. This wasn’t a display of moderating but a tactical retreat when the other side was holding all the cards and there was a credible threat if Iran did not comply.

Gary Milhollin, a critic of the deal wrote a commentary for the New York Times, The Mullahs and the bomb:
Under the new deal, Iran is supposed to explain all this. If it doesn’t, it risks being condemned as a pariah by the Security Council and the European Union may have to shelve its trade agreement with Iran, which would cost all concerned a lot of money. Thus Britain, France and Germany, as well as Iran, have an interest in seeing Iran comply.

But the problem is, even if Iran does so, there will be little assurance that the deal will really dampen Iran’s nuclear hopes. Consider what happened with the pact hammered out by the Clinton administration with North Korea in 1994, which had much in common with the present situation.

North Korea faced worldwide condemnation and a possible war with the United States after violating its inspection agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency. By agreeing to suspend its effort to produce plutonium, North Korea avoided censure and got economic benefits from the West, and yet it preserved its nuclear potential intact. North Korea’s 8,000 fuel rods — containing five bombs’ worth of plutonium — never left the country. Like a sword poised over the world’s head, they remained only months away from being converted into bomb fuel — something that the North Koreans say was finally done this summer. The North Korean bomb program only shifted into neutral; now it is back in gear.
In any case a few months later, the Los Angeles Times reported Secret Iran Nuclear Plan Discovered:
International inspectors have discovered that Iran hid blueprints for a powerful device to enrich uranium, in an apparent breach of Tehran’s promise last year to disclose all of its nuclear activities, officials in Vienna and Washington said Thursday.

The discovery of the concealed blueprints for a state-of-the-art centrifuge, which could be used to enrich uranium for civilian reactors or nuclear bombs, raised questions about whether Tehran also has bought designs for a nuclear weapon from the same black-market sources, the officials said.
Unless making a deal for a deal’s sake is a virtue, the compromise wasn’t even observed.

After reviewing Rouhani’s record and his book on the subject of nuclear negotiations, veteran Israeli journalist, Yossi Melman, concluded:
“National Security and Nuclear Diplomacy,” which has been recently reprinted, is now a must read for every intelligence analyst and state official who wishes to know how Iran’s nuclear politics may be affected by the new president. In summary, it can be said that Iran will change its tone – it will be softer and more pleasant – but the music will remain the same.
The New York Times mistakes moderation in style for moderation in substance.

Later on the profile helpfully adds:
In his books on foreign policy, Mr. Rouhani writes that modernity has failed, and that Christians in the West gave in to secularism without a fight. According to him, the United States and the Islamic republic are in permanent conflict. Israel, he writes, is the “axis of all anti-Iranian activities.”
That last sentence is presented as it’s merely an eccentricity that requires no further elaboration. Does it make a difference that he’s actually recently praised Hezbollah for fighting Israel or that Tehran said that the United States and Israel are the two countries that are not invited to Rouhani’s inauguration? These aren’t just some offhand comments, but rather articles of faith, but the Times isn’t really interested in exploring how seriously he believes them.

The point of the article wasn’t to examine Rouhani’s record skeptically, but rather to advertise that he’s a man the West can do business with. It was less journalism than a tribute written for a dinner in his honor. For the most part the article paints a picture of a man who is looking for compromise, even at the cost of his own standing and ignores or downplays any evidence to the contrary. Maybe, Rouhani fell out of favor after the compromise of ten years ago, but he was one of the very few candidates who were approved by the Guardian Council. That suggests that he is no reformer, but, rather, a true believer.

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