DENVER, Colorado — The United States and international news organizations have made much of the new Iranian president’s peace and friendship initiative, tactfully scripted to charm a hopeful media and American public.
But the international community would be well advised to look beyond President Hassan Rouhani’s pleasant words and appealing effort to show a basic courtesy famously eschewed by his predecessor.
Iran ranks among the world’s most ideologically driven nations. That ideology, suffused with overlays of religion, presents the US and Israel as the leading causes for the world’s ills. It subjugates its people in the name of the revolution and justifies criminal actions to defend its theocratic leadership and virulently anti-American campaign.
Nothing Rouhani has said or done since taking office suggests that Iran intends to modify an ideology substantively unaltered since 1979.
However, if the new Iranian president and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei are serious about rapprochement with the US and the West, there are actions Rouhani can take even before negotiations over the nuclear issue conclude. Here are some suggestions.
Rouhani should become the principal point of contact for inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The president should immediately invite the inspectors to Iran, meet with them personally and offer his personal guarantee that they will be allowed to inspect the country’s nuclear and military facilities, including its Fordow nuclear enrichment plant. The inspectors could then refer directly to him any issue regarding access to facilities.
The president also could affirm his country’s commitment to abide fully by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Iran ratified in 1968.
Rouhani could announce suspension of all Iranian government support for terrorism. Since 1979, an essential component of the Islamic Republic’s strategy has been to support terrorism. The supreme leader and his predecessor, the Ayatollah Khomeini, have reaffirmed it repeatedly.
An obvious place for Rouhani to begin is cutting funds for Hezbollah’s violent activities. He also could end support for militant Shiite organizations in Syria and Iraq. Iran could expel internationally wanted terrorists it has been harboring, including those wanted for the 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 US airmen. Iran could also sign the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism.
Rouhani could condemn the government of Syria and Syrian President Bashar al Assad for the use of chemical weapons against Syrian citizens. Such condemnation from the regime’s strongest backer would be more effective in preventing future use of these weapons than Security Council resolutions or cruise missile strikes on Syrian weapons sites.
Additionally, Iran could suspend the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ involvement in the conflict, especially its role in advising, training and arming Shia militias in Syria and Iran. The Iranian president could offer his government’s cooperation in reaching a negotiated settlement to the Syrian civil war, eliminating terrorist elements within Syria and eventually transitioning Syria to democratic rule.
Rouhani could indicate his support for Middle East peace, including a peaceful settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He could begin by ending threatening rhetoric and action against Israel. From its inception, the Islamic Republic, in both word and deed, has undermined Mideast peace and threatened the state of Israel, even calling for its removal from the map of the Middle East.
Simply halting Iran’s menacing talk and support for organizations seeking the demise of the Jewish state would offer a transformative approach to the country’s foreign policy. Rouhani should also unambiguously repudiate the reprehensible remarks of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on the Holocaust.
The president should stand up for human rights in Iran. His country’s human rights record is abysmal. Its release in September of a prominent Iranian human rights advocate, Nasrin Sotoudeh, and several other prisoners was a good start toward improving that record; but how many more Iranians remain imprisoned for merely expressing their views?
There can be no genuine democracy when political opposition is threatened with imprisonment and the media is muzzled. Rouhani should also call a halt to the Islamic Republic’s unrelenting persecution of members of the Baha’i faith and other religious and ethnic minorities.
He could even assume historic world leader stature by calling for dialogue and reconciliation between Sunni and Shia Muslims around the world, starting with Iraq and Syria, where hundreds of thousands have died in sectarian feuding just in the last decade.
None of these ambitious, and perhaps overly optimistic suggestions, is to suggest that the US, other permanent United Nations Security Council members and Germany should not pursue a deal to contain Iran’s nuclear program.
The US successfully negotiated meaningful arms agreements with the Soviet Union when the latter showed no inclination to modify its ultimately self-destructive communist ideology.
The US can doubtless do the same with Iran. However, as long as the ideology that supports and practices unacceptable behavior persists at home and abroad, Iran will remain a pariah state. But better a pariah without nukes than one with them.
Gary Grappo is a retired senior foreign service officer from the State Department. He has served in the Middle East, including as US ambassador to the Sultanate of Oman, head of mission of the Jerusalem-based Office of the Quartet Representative, and minister counselor for political affairs at the US Embassy in Baghdad.