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Rouhani’s Head Fake

Rouhani’s Head Fake

This past Saturday, Iran inaugurated a new president — former nuclear negotiator Hassan Rouhani. And while there is rightly a consensus that Rouhani’s victory will do little to change Iran’s foreign policy, domestic policy is another matter. Indeed, there are strong indications that Rouhani plans to pursue a new domestic agenda to increase the regime’s diminishing popularity among Iranians.

Specifically, Rouhani, who has portrayed himself as a populist reformer, may try to cosmetically improve the human rights situation in Iran. At the same time, the regime may use such action to present itself to the world as "changed," and buy precious time to complete its nuclear program. The international community must not allow this to happen.

A word about the Iranian nuclear program: Most everyone agrees that Iran is getting closer and closer to having the nuclear weapons capability it has long sought. While there are differing opinions on when it will reach fruition, the bottom line is that the program is advancing, and this event is not a decade away, but one poised to happen in the near future.

Time is of the essence, and the current trajectory has to change. This is why Americans should be highly concerned about the disaster that could come from the international community buying into a Rouhani-led charm offensive and easing the current pressure on Iran.

From Rouhani’s perspective, Iran’s human rights situation is the perfect area to claim to be reforming. Iran’s treatment of its own citizens is absolutely appalling, as citizens are commonly denied free speech, fair trials, and personal liberties. Iranians are targeted and punished for their religions, ethnicities, and sexual orientations. Hundreds are executed, some publicly by construction crane or gallows, for minor or nonexistent offenses. Journalists and dissidents are increasingly being monitored, imprisoned, beaten, and in some cases killed.

The Iranian regime behaves abysmally in many ways, but its human rights abuses are unique in that they cannot be blamed on the West. The regime commonly faults the West and sanctions for the dismal economic situation in Iran, ignoring its own economic mismanagement and kleptocratic structures. Likewise, it carries out international terror attacks and threatens military strikes, claiming that it is defending itself from Western aggression. Yet when it comes to beating, torturing, and killing Iranians without due process, there is no external boogeyman for the regime to blame.

This is in fact a crucial reason why the international community needs to continue to uncover and highlight the regime’s abuses — doing so shows the Iranian people that the world sees the cruel nature of the men that unjustly rule them. It also strengthens the case for why the international community should ratchet up sanctions and do what it takes to prevent this violent and aggressive regime from having a nuclear weapon at its disposal.

The Iranian regime has, through its intransigence, turned the entire world against it. As former George W. Bush-era officials on U.N. matters who are typically not optimistic about the body’s ability to affect change, we were particularly astounded to see that even the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva took action by appointing a Special Rapporteur for human rights in Iran, Ahmed Shaheed, to report on the human rights situation in the country.  

In truth, sanctions and international pressure have been quite effective at economically isolating Iran. Iran’s economy is in freefall and countries, banks, and companies around the world have sworn off business with the regime. The climate for pressuring Iran is exponentially better than it was just a few years ago.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, clearly knows that his people are fed up with the current situation and blame their leadership. He also appears willing to go along with some trappings of change instead of risking a more significant uprising among the population. It is quite plausible that Khamenei will allow Rouhani to take cosmetic steps to appear to improve the human rights situation in Iran, for the same reasons he went along with Rouhani’s electoral victory in the first place.

And therein lies the most immediate problem. Khamenei and Rouhani will be glad to see a tamping down of the current restiveness in the country, but they are also likely to portray such "improvements" to the rest of the world as evidence of change and buy time to continue their nuclear program and try to roll back or stall current sanctions.

It is imperative that the international community not fall for this trick. No real change will occur under this theocracy. Cosmetic change is not a reason to give the regime economic relief, and the time it needs to finish its nuclear program.

Mark P. Lagon is a former U.S. ambassador to combat trafficking in persons, a Georgetown University professor in the practice on international affairs, and a Council on Foreign Relations adjunct senior fellow. Mark D. Wallace is CEO of United Against Nuclear Iran. He served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, representative for U.N. management and reform.