Does Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s diplomatic charm offensive at the United Nations represent a historic opportunity that must be explored; an elaborate ploy meant to ease crippling economic sanctions and buy the Islamic Republic more time to develop nuclear weapons; or something in the middle?
While Philadelphia and its environs are certainly not the center of diplomatic activity or where policy will be determined, analysts, academics and activists here are quick to weigh in on what the recent events — including the first conversation between an American and Iranian head of government since the 1979 revolution in Iran — means for the United States, Israel and the broader Middle East.
“Last week was a very significant event in the history of attempts to re-establish a dialogue,” explained Ralph Begleiter, directer of the Center for Political Communication at the University of Delaware.
During his two decades as a world affairs correspondent for CNN, Begleiter interviewed numerous Iranian officials. “Because Rouhani is so freshly elected, he was able to get beyond the politics in his own country and open up a dialogue with the United States.”
On the other hand, Daniel Pipes, president of the Middle East Forum, a Philadelphia-based think tank, said he’s “long argued that the Iranian authorities, like the North Korean ones, are dead set on joining the nuclear club, so I will be mildly astonished if this charm campaign proves to be anything but a ruse to buy time. I hope the Obama administration has its eyes open to the possibility.”
At least since 2005, with the election of Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, much of American Jewry has been concerned about the existential threat a nuclear Iran could pose to Israel, as well as to other American interests in the region. After all, Ahmadinejad routinely spoke of wiping Israel off the map.
A potentially less threatening Iran, embodied by its president, could bring about a major change in Jewish thinking.
On the national scene, responses within the Jewish organizational world to Rouhani’s statements — including an interview in which the Iranian leader may have acknowledged the Holocaust — have been relatively muted. Statements made by national leaders have tended to be cautionary.
American Jewish Committee’s executive director, David Harris, said, “Robust sanctions must be maintained in full as the U.S. tests again the commitment of Iran to engage in diplomacy.”
“Given Iran’s track record of ignoring the U.N. Security Council,” he said, “the onus will be on Tehran to unequivocally desist from its assertive quest for nuclear-weapons capability.”
The Times of Israel reported that J Street’s founder, Jeremy Ben-Ami, told reporters at the group’s recent conference, “You’ve got to test this out. I’m not saying just accept” Rouhani “on face value.”
Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America and a resident of Lower Merion, called last week’s outreach “an Iranian ruse.”
“This is a very bad and dishonorable man,” Klein said of the Iranian president. “Iran may be only a few months away” from nuclear-weapons capability. “This is not now the time for further negotiations.”
Yet among certain local observers, there seemed to be some genuine hope that Rouhani represents a sharp change from the past, even though he is thought to be doing everything with the blessing of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Reuben Tehrani, a 59-year-old businessman who came to the United States in 1972 and lives in the Overbrook section of Philadelphia, has never been one to refrain from critiquing the Iranian regime. But he thinks there’s a chance Iran’s leaders could be serious about reaching a deal with the West.
“The Iranians are under such pressure that they have no choice,” he said, referring to the crippling effect of sanctions and the threat of American force against Syria. “They have been isolated for 35 years. The best way for them to survive is to work with America and the West.”
Jerry Sorkin, a tour operator based in Wayne who has long called for more engagement with the Muslim world and has led four trips to Iran since 2009, called recent developments “very positive steps.”
“It can only be in the U.S. interest, as well as Iran’s, to have discussions,” he said from his office in Tunisia. “As far as Israel goes, not everyone in Israel feels as Netanyahu does. It can only serve Israel’s interest if there can be a lowering of the temperature.”
Begleiter, meanwhile, made clear that he is in no way sure this will turn out well and doesn’t think the United States should soften its position on linking sanctions to Iran’s nuclear program. But he thinks that Iran has been motivated by real factors to reconsider its approach.
“Think how close the United States came to attacking Syria, Tehran’s closest ally,” he said. “That pushed the Iranian leadership in the direction of seizing the opportunity of the General Assembly” to shift gears.
But others think if the United States works with Rouhani, it will do so at its own peril.
“President Hassan Rouhani himself is not the key decision maker. Supreme leader Ali Khamenei is,” said Pipes. “The question is, has the latter concluded that it’s not worth the effort to build a nuclear bomb — or has he not? Is he using Rouhani’s attractive smile to change policy or merely to play out the clock? No one can answer that question yet, but we should know soon enough.”
Edward Turzanski, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute — another Center City think tank — and scholar-in-residence at La Salle University, said the administration’s weak and inconsistent handling of the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime has only emboldened Iran, not chastened it.
“The Iranians say, ‘You know what, these sanctions hurt, we can actually make them go away’ without giving up its nuclear program,” he said.
“They have not come this far just to say never mind,” he said. “It is not wrong to engage. By all means, take a phone call. Begin discussions in earnest. But the Iranians have to be given time-certain deadlines,” Turzanski said, adding that he thinks Tehran has no interest in meeting such deadlines.
“They are playing for time,” he said. “I don’t think anything is going to come out of this.” l