Washington is preoccupied with two all-consuming debates right now.
First, of course, is Syria. President Barack Obama placed his faith in two wholly untrustworthy figures. Syrian President Bashar Assad has shown himself to be a consummate liar, and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s overarching goals on Syria are to protect Assad and show up the United States.
Meantime, Democrats and Republicans are locked in ever more hostile arguments over the price that right-wing zealots are trying to exact to pass the annual budget and extend the debt ceiling.
Important issues, for sure. But these problems are sucking all the oxygen out of the room while Iran is practically screaming to be noticed.
Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, is presenting himself as the genuine moderate he promised to be. That’s how he won election in June, telling voters that he would offer “moderation and maturity” and not “extremism.”
And so he has behaved since, saying repeatedly, for example, that “we want the people in their private life to be completely free” to say whatever they want, look at whatever they want online and elsewhere.
What’s more, he has continually insisted that he wants to resolve the nuclear debate with the West, promising that his office enters with “full power and complete authority” to “solve this problem.”
The truth, however, is that Rouhani is essentially the vice president. Full authority rests with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the hardline supreme leader. But, even more surprising, Khamenei has offered cautious endorsement for Rouhani’s efforts.
All of this sounds so encouraging, but of course caution, even suspicion, are necessary bywords for dealing with Iran. U.S. leaders have not had direct, face-to-face discussions with Iranian leaders since 1979.
Nonetheless, Obama told the United Nations Tuesday, “I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested.”
Some government officials are pessimistic, saying Iran’s proclamations are all rhetoric, while others want to leap to the negotiating table.
My conclusion from all of this is that sanctions are finally working.
Sanctions have cut Iran’s oil exports by more than half, devastating the economy while bringing on hyperinflation — now hanging between 40 percent and 45 percent.
Worst of all from the government’s point of view, the nation is not allowed to use the SWIFT international currency-exchange system — a crippling prohibition.
Farshad Ghorbanpour, an Iranian political analyst, told the International Herald Tribune, “economic reasons are now justifying political reasons to talk to the U.S.”
And so Rouhani seems to be putting on a charm offensive. He released 11 high-profile political prisoners. He transferred authority for the nuclear program from the military to the foreign ministry — headed by his new, seemingly moderate foreign minister, Javad Zarif.
Numerous pundits from the left and the right have been opining that Obama’s failure so far to attack Syria is empowering Iran and North Korea to continue pursuing their nuclear programs with impunity.
For Iranians, the decision not to attack for now seems to have had the opposite effect.
Had Washington bombed Syria, do you think Rouhani would have offered further promises of moderation and cooperation with the U.S. while speaking at a military parade in Tehran on Sunday?
And would Foreign Minister Zarif have tweeted that the U.S. and Iran “have a historic opportunity to resolve the nuclear issue”— countering Washington’s preoccupation with other issues?