The newest member of the State Department’s Middle East negotiating team has argued that Hassan Rouhani, the Iranian president, is a highly-pragmatic leader who would give up obtaining nuclear weapons for the sake of maintaining the Iranian regime and, even if Iran had weapons, could likely be deterred from using them.
David Makovsky was appointed to John Kerry’s Middle East team this week. And though Makovsky has long been a supporter of Israel in Washington, four years ago he extolled Rouhani as the opposite of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and “fanatic” Iranian clerics who are too “apocalyptic” to be deterred– stopped from using nuclear weapons by the threat that the west would use nuclear weapons against Iran if it did so.
Deterrence might work with Rouhani, Makovsky concluded.
In his book Myths, Illusions and Peace (2009), co-authored with (that other friend of Israel) Dennis Ross, Makovsky said that Ahmadinejad and other clerics were devoted to a Shiite savior or messiah called the “Mahdi,” also known as the “Hidden Imam.” This devotion led the clerics to believe that a “divine hand” was guiding Iran to achieving nuclear capability.
So Ahmadinejad would be willing to “roll the dice” on Iran and risk his people for the sake of hitting Israel with a nuclear weapon, Makovsky argued.
Not so the cleric Rouhani.
The cleric Hassan Rouhani, the former nuclear negotiator and ex-secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, has criticized Ahmadinejad’s government for ‘encouraging superstitious practices.’ He has bluntly attacked those who speak of the imminent reappearance of the Mahdi…
Makovsky then quoted Rouhani’s very rational statements– in which he described the claims of the Mahdi’s return as a “circus show” and called Ahmadinejad a “liar.”
Makovsky and Ross wrote:
[T]his is not just a theoretical dispute between Ahmadinejad and Rouhani. It could have relevance for Iran’s behavior–no doubt the very reason Rouhani feels the need to attack [Ahmadinejad’s beliefs]. Indeed, it could have relevance for whether deterrence can really work with a nuclear Iran.
Their conclusion would seem to be that even if Iran had nukes, Rouhani’s not the type to use them. (The containment argument advanced by Kenneth Waltz.)
Makovsky and Ross also characterized Rouhani as a highly rational actor, who might be willing to negotiate away nuclear capability, in good faith.
Rouhani is part of the Iranian elite that “see unacceptably high costs in being excluded from the international system–and dissuasion might work with them,” they wrote.
For these members of the Iranian elite, survival of the regime is paramount. They seek to preserve the system, and they understand that having a connection to the international financial system and the global economy is essential. And they seem to understand well that confronting the outside world will isolate and not integrate Iran internationally. Consider the words of Hassan Rouhani: ‘Foreign policy does not mean chanting slogans. Foreign policy does not mean using fiery words. Foreign policy does not mean increasing threats against us. We cannot say we want to be developed but, at the same time, we don’t want to interact with the international community.’
Of course, Makovsky and Ross wrote before Rouhani became president.
Since he became president, Rouhani has been demonized by the neoconservatives. And last month Makovsky and Ross slightly amended their view, to say that the west must question Rouhani’s sincerity before making a deal with him.
But four years ago, they saw him as utterly sincere.
Do you ever feel that when it comes to pro-Israel views of Iran, you’re in a hall of mirrors?