By Richard Gwyn
Does Iranian President Hassan Rouhani actually mean the extraordinary things he is now saying — essentially, that Iran does not want to have, nor ever will have, a nuclear weapons program — or are all his almost miraculously encouraging statements only a trick to buy time so his country can actually build the bomb?
Ample evidence exists to justify either interpretation. Already, Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, is proposing that negotiations begin with a “jump start” with the objective of completing them by early 2014.
Similarly, Rouhani has called for talks that are “time-based and results-oriented.” Except that the only accomplishment of all earlier negotiations has been to enable Iran to edge ever closer to so-called “breakout capability.”
The term means that as soon Iran achieves 25 kilograms of enriched uranium, as it all but already has done, it would be able to construct a bomb before the material could be destroyed by a military strike by Israel and/or the U.S.
Even a successful pre-emptive strike would merely postpone for a year or so the moment of reckoning. At least as alarming, other Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey will feel compelled to match Iran’s impending power.
Nevertheless, one item of encouraging evidence is particularly persuasive because it is concrete and measurable. The sanctions imposed on Iran to deter it from attempting to develop nuclear weapons have had a considerable effect, a good deal more so than was originally expected.
For the past two years, Iran’s economy has shrunk each year. Also, inflationary pressures now are severe. Complaints by ordinary people and by businessmen are widespread and are expressed openly.
One other telling item exists, of an entirely different nature but potentially of decisive importance. As president, Rouhani, who won that post by a landslide in the summer election, exercises extensive power. Real power in Iran, though, resides with its Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. Under the system of Velayat-e-Faqih, or guardianship, no political decision or action can become law without his approval.
Khamenei’s fatwas range from banning women from riding motorcycles to his declaration (often overlooked in commentary by outsiders) that it is un-Islamic to develop nuclear weapons or to store them.
A fortnight ago, Khamenei delivered a speech unlike any other he has given during his 14 years in power. In it, he said this: “I agree with what I defined years ago as ‘heroic flexibility,’ because that approach is good and necessary in certain situations, as long as we adhere to our principles.”
That phrase “heroic flexibility” would be immediately understood by all educated Shia Muslims. It was minted by a seventh-century grandson of the prophet Imam Hassan to justify a treaty that he judged would benefit Islam even though it involved major concessions to his opponents.
Khamenei had to have used the phrase with deliberate intent. The Ayatollah himself long ago translated a new version of the major religious text, “Hassan’s Peace: the Most Glorious Heroic Flexibility in History.”
As may have been a coincidence, Rouhani’s full name is Hassan Rouhani. As surely wasn’t a coincidence, Rouhani was the one moderate candidate whom Khamenei allowed to run for the presidency alongside seven hard-liners.
In his own speech at the United Nations, U.S. President Barack Obama applauded the possibility of a new Iran-U.S. relationship based on “mutual interests and mutual respect.”
He added, though, “The roadblocks may be too great.”
His caution was wholly justified. But Obama failed to take note that by the diktat of the Supreme Leader, Iran’s policy is now that of “heroic flexibility.”
It may not last. It may turn out to be a trick lathered over with charm.
But a clear challenge is developing for Obama: to show that he, and the U.S., can likewise exercise heroic flexibility.
It’s of course easy to say this. And exceedingly difficult to do. But thanks to two people with whom he has absolutely nothing in common — Ayatollah Khamenei as one, Vladimir Putin as the other — Obama has a chance, however slim, to end his presidency with an important achievement that will outlast him.
Richard Gwyn’s column appears every other Thursday. Email firstname.lastname@example.org