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Fallacy of a moderate mullah

By RAMESH SEPEHRRAD, UPI Outside View Commentator   |   Sept. 23, 2013 at 12:06 AM   |   Comments

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ARLINGTON, Va., Sept. 23 (UPI) -- During his presidential campaign Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, brazenly boasted how skillfully he had deceived the Europeans Troika back when he was Iran's lead nuclear negotiator.

He will be in New York this week to camouflage his regime's malevolent nuclear objectives with empty words, deceptive declarations, backed by a well-oiled public relations machine.

U.S. President Barack Obama must not fall for his shenanigans.

To be sure, Iran's diplomatic offensive in recent weeks hardly hides the dire and fragile state of the ruling regime. The factional and political fissures continue to deepen since June's presidential election.

The economy is crumbling, due to decades of mismanagement and corruption, and under the crushing weight of international sanctions. Unprecedented high inflation and unemployment are exponentially adding to the popular discontent.

The constant fear that a wrong political or social move could trigger another mass uprising compelled Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to sign off on his horse in the race and accept Rouhani's presidency. A few days before the election, he desperately pled with his opponents to participate in the election for the "sake of the system."

These are all signs of Khamenei's diminishing stature in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

There is no secret that successive U.S. administrations have been bedeviled on how to formulate a sound policy toward Iran in light of its three-decade-long horrific human rights record and the multi-pronged threats it has posed to the free world.

Indeed, some experts have termed Iran as the Bermuda Triangle of U.S. foreign policy.

The Obama administration is no exception. It reacted passively and belatedly to Iran's popular uprising in the summer of 2009. It allowed Iraq to be a free ground for Iran's political and para-military activities. It turned a blind eye to Tehran's multiple massacres of Iranian dissidents in Iraq. And it has continuously downplayed Iran's harmful and extensive role in Syria.

One can argue there has been no policy on Iran since 1979 and the United States continues to experiment different options without clear objectives.

Leadership in Tehran is aware of Washington's policy paralysis on Iran and views the United States' recent handling of the Syrian crisis as sign of its declining regional influence. They believe there is an opening here to exploit. The hope is that with enough mix of Rouhani's smiles and tweets, rhetorical denial of Iran's desire for nuclear weapons, and release of high-profile political prisoners, Iran can fend off further international pressure.

Khamenei is anticipating that Rouhani's blitzkrieg charm offensive compels the United States to throw Iran a badly needed lifeline and buy enough time for its nuclear weapons program and plans in Syria.

Just days before Rouhani departure for New York, Khamenei spoke of "heroic flexibility" in the diplomatic arena during his meetings with Iranian Revolutionary Guards commanders. He cryptically explained, "a wrestler sometimes shows flexibility for technical reasons. But he does not forget who his opponent and enemy are or what his main objective is."

Through these public remarks, Khameini's intention was to re-establish that he is the ultimate authority on Iran's key foreign and domestic national security policies. He also signaled Iran's powerful IRGC to show an interim tactical flexibility for the ultimate objectives of nuclear weapons.

Recent statements by Obama and his spokesmen are further fueling Rouhani's charm offensive.

It is astonishing that after decades of steady failures, the myth of a moderate mullah, an ayatollah Gorbachev, who -- as the myth goes -- would positively and strategically shift Iran's intransigent policies, hasn't gone away.

Indeed, the last two times that Washington pinned hopes on a "moderate mullah" in Iran, they both turned out to be anything but.

During Hashemi Rafsanjani's presidency assassination of Iranian dissidents across Europe skyrocketed, Iran's brand of fundamentalism was further spread throughout the region, and Tehran-sponsored terrorism found new victims in Argentina.

Similarly, under Mohammad Khatami, multiple popular student uprisings were crushed -- –with the so-called "moderate-leaning" Rouhani playing a main role -- and foundations of Iran's nuclear program and uranium enrichment capabilities advanced significantly.

Rouhani is no different than his predecessors. Since his election, more than 170 individuals have been executed in Iran, many in public. The Guardian newspaper reported that about 800 political prisoners are in Iran's jails. Earlier this month, many of his Cabinet ministers joined the commanders of the IRGC and the Quds Force to praise the Iraqi government for the Sept. 1 massacre of 52 Iranian dissidents, members of Iranian opposition People's Mujahedin of Iran.

He is a known insider who has been involved in many key policy decisions and suppressive and nefarious activities of the Iranian regime throughout the last three decades. He was approved by Iran's electoral vetting body Guardian Council as someone with proven allegiance to the absolute rule of the Supreme Leader. To Iranians, he's known as a polished con artist.

Rouhani was appointed by Khamenei as the secretary for the Supreme National Security Council for 16 years. At this capacity, he told a pro-government rally during the 1999 student uprising that, "At dusk yesterday we received a decisive revolutionary order to crush mercilessly and monumentally any move of these opportunist elements wherever it may occur." He is also believed to have been in the planning committee of the 1994 Argentina bombing.

Yet, the music is on and the U.S.-Iranian dance began with Rouhani, on the nuclear issue, since last week. Rouhani is hard at work.

Washington may not realize that Rouhani is Khamenei's last chance for survival. His call for flexibility is not coming from position of strength. Khamenei has on many occasions warned about the deadly domino effect of making concessions and that Iran will never be like a Russia under Mikhail Gorbachev.

Rouhani has forewarned that he wants to return to Tehran with some progress. The question is will Washington fall for the con artist or else.

Obama has a choice to break the policy paralysis on Iran and insist on mandates by a multitude of U.N. Security Council resolutions.

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(Ramesh Sepehrrad is a scholar practitioner from School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University. She has focused her research and field work on Iranian affairs as it relates to human rights, gender equality and U.S. policy on Iran for more than two decades.)

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(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

© 2013 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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