For several days after the election of Hassan Rouhani as Iran's new president, advocates of engagement with Tehran couldn't stop smiling. Jack Straw, the former British Foreign Secretary, praised Rouhani as "straightforward and pragmatic to deal with" and expressed hope that the tortuous saga of Iran's nuclear ambitions would "have a happy ending." A New York Times editorial solemnly concluded that a rare opportunity to reach a deal over Iran's nuclear program was now at hand, cautioning that President Obama would have his work cut out dissuading potential spoilers--such as "congressional leaders and Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel"--from raising objections.
It's understandable, if not quite excusable, that the engagement camp is positively joyous at the thought of using the words "moderate," "pragmatic" and "Iran" in the same sentence. Rouhani's predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was always a thorn in the side of those who consider Iran what international relations scholars call a "rational actor." To cynics, he was a gift that kept on giving, someone who could be faithfully relied upon to say something outrageous--denying the Holocaust, threatening Israel with annihilation--just when everyone else was quietly waiting for a breakthrough.
But does the engagement camp have a point, or is it, as a decidedly less sanguine Iranian friend of mine told me in an email, full of "half-wit mullah lovers"?
The expectation that Rouhani will become an Iranian version of Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader whose far-reaching reforms contributed to the eventual dissolution of the USSR, is certain to persist. After all, the hunger for political change inside Iran is as palpable as it was during the last days of the Soviet Empire, as is the worsening economic outlook.
The strategic context, however, couldn't be more different. The bloodbath in Syria, in which Iran and its Lebanese Islamist ally Hezbollah have rushed to support the bestial dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, offers inescapable proof that the conflict in the Middle East is less a confrontation with Israel and the U.S. than it is a civil war between the majority Sunni and minority Shi'a streams of Islam. To posit that Shi'a Iran would, with this epic struggle in the background, abandon its carefully calibrated nuclear ambiguity simply because Rouhani comports himself with more dignity than Ahmadinejad is the stuff of fairy tales.
Remember: Rouhani has not called...