From the brink of war, the Middle East has moved at dizzying speed to the cusp of peace. Or so we have been led to believe.
The issues at hand are Iran and Syria – and incidentally, there is good reason to feel some relief from that fact, since it’s a timely reminder that Palestinian opposition to Israel’s legitimacy is not the core dispute in the region, but a sideshow in the larger civil war with Islam that has engulfed much of this neighborhood.
In Syria, the regime of Bashar al-Assad claims, under the watchful eye of the Russians, to be submitting vital data on its chemical arsenal, in advance of a November deadline to disarm itself of these monstrous weapons. If the Obama administration is looking to save face from its shabby climb-down in the face of Syrian brutality and Russian duplicity, it can always assert that the Syrian disarmament process is yielding positive effects in neighboring Iran. The White House can argue that the renewed impetus for a deal on Iran’s nuclear program is the result of a credible threat of force against Assad, Tehran’s key regional ally. Confront these dictators and tyrants with the prospect of an American assault, the White House might say (off the record, of course), and they will bend.
But I suspect that the White House is going to have trouble selling this line on Iran, especially when you take its to-ing and fro-ing over Syria into account. For one thing, betting on the ability of Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s new president, to deliver a deal is risky business. Rouhani says that Iran does not intend to build a nuclear weapon, but there is no solid evidence of his sincerity. Even if he is sincere, there is no solid evidence that he can carry the rest of the Iranian regime with him, particularly given that, as president, he is subordinate to both the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
What strikes me is that for all the gushing attention paid to Rouhani’s charm offensive, which had been astutely timed to coincide with his arrival in New York for the United Nations General Assembly meeting, nothing has really changed – and I’m not just referring to Iran’s state doctrine of Holocaust denial, about which Rouhani, when asked by NBC’s Ann Curry whether he believed that the slaughter of six million Jews was a myth, replied, “I’m not a historian.”
For years, straight-faced Iranian diplomats have been turning up at meetings of the U.N. Security Council to offer assurances that their nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only. You could put that in another, more cynical way: Iran is doing what it has always done, using diplomatic engagement to buy time for its nuclear program. Whether or not Rouhani’s pledge not to build a nuclear weapon is genuine, the Iranian regime is either very close to obtaining one, or has already done so.
Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org.