• Saturday 7th December 2019

Iran’s New President Won’t Compromise

History, it is said, doesn’t repeat itself, but occasionally it does rhyme. So it is with Western policy toward Iran, which is on the verge of returning to the costly rhythm of the past.

Iran’s new president wants to build trust with West, but won’t budge on key issues

History, it is said, doesn’t repeat itself, but occasionally it does rhyme. So it is with Western policy toward Iran, which is on the verge of returning to the costly rhythm of the past.

To understand why, it’s necessary to recall the summer of 1997. That was when a relatively obscure, soft-line cleric named Mohammad Khatami unexpectedly emerged as the front-runner for the Iranian presidency. Khatami’s subsequent

victory electrified policymakers and the mainstream news media in Washington and European capitals, all of whom were eager for some sort of détente with Tehran after nearly two decades of unremitting hostility. Khatami, in turn, fanned those desires by calling for a “dialogue of civilizations” with the West.

Hope trampled

This enthusiasm, however, turned out to be misplaced. At home, Khatami, despite

campaign rhetoric about the need for social reform, presided over a worsening human rights situation, culminating in the regime’s infamous July 1999 suppression of protests at Tehran University, an incident that left at least four dead and hundreds injured. As for the civilizational dialogue envisioned by Khatami, it turned out to have less to do with genuine reconciliation with the U.S. and Europe than with an effort to lessen Tehran’s deepening diplomatic isolation. Western outreach predictably fizzled, despite repeated overtures on the part of the Clinton administration and various European governments.

Fast-forward 16 years, and the situation is eerily similar. The June 14

election of Hasan Rowhani, a purported “moderate,” to the Iranian presidency has reignited hopes in many quarters that some sort of negotiated settlement with Tehran might be within reach. Rowhani has deftly played upon those hopes, offering his own, updated version of Khatami’s dialogue of civilizations in calling for “constructive interaction” with the West on a range of issues.

The devil, however, is in the details. Already, Rowhani has made plain that the Iranian regime won’t budge on the two matters preoccupying Western policymakers the most: Iran’s

nuclear program, and its support for the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria. In his first news conference as president-elect, Rowhani ruled out a cessation of Iran’s uranium enrichment activities and made clear that the Iranian government will continue to try and keep Assad in power with both diplomacy and materiel.


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