The search, now 30 years old, for Iranian "moderates" goes on. Amid the enthusiasm of the latest sighting, it's worth remembering that the highlight of the Iran-contra arms-for-hostages debacle was the secret trip to Tehran taken by Robert McFarlane, President Ronald Reagan's former national security adviser. He brought a key-shaped cake symbolizing the new relations he was opening with the "moderates." We know how that ended.
Three decades later, the mirage reappears in the form of Hassan Rouhani. Strange resume for a moderate: 35 years of unswervingly loyal service to the Islamic Republic as a close aide to Ayatollahs Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Khamenei. Moreover, Rouhani was one of only six presidential candidates, another 678 having been disqualified by the regime as ideologically unsound. That puts him in the 99th centile for fealty.
Rouhani is Khamenei's agent but, with a smile and style, he's now hailed as the face of Iranian moderation. Why? Because Rouhani wants better relations with the West.
Well, what leader would not want relief from Western sanctions that have sunk Iran's economy, devalued its currency and caused widespread hardship? The test of moderation is not what you want but what you're willing to give. After all, sanctions were not slapped on Iran for amusement. It was to enforce multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding a halt to uranium enrichment.
Yet in his lovey-dovey Washington Post op-ed, his U.N. speech and various interviews, Rouhani gives not an inch on uranium enrichment. Indeed, he has repeatedly denied that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons at all. Or ever has. Such a transparent falsehood — what country swimming in oil would sacrifice its economy just to produce nuclear electricity that advanced countries like Germany are already abandoning? — is hardly the basis for a successful negotiation.
But successful negotiation is not what the mullahs are seeking. They want sanctions relief. And more than anything, they want to buy time.
It takes about 250 kilograms of 20 percent enriched uranium to make a nuclear bomb. The International Atomic Energy Agency reported in August that Iran already has 186 kilograms. That leaves the Iranians on the threshold of going nuclear. They are adding 3,000 new high-speed centrifuges. They need just a bit more talking, stalling, smiling and stringing along a gullible West.
Rouhani is the man to do exactly that. As Iran's chief nuclear negotiator between 2003 and 2005, he boasted in a 2004 speech to the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council, "While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the uranium conversion facility in Isfahan. . . . In fact, by creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work in Isfahan." Such is their contempt for us that they don't even hide their strategy: Spin the centrifuges while spinning the West.
And when the president of the world's sole superpower asks for a photo-op handshake with the president of a regime that, in President Barack Obama's own words, kills and kidnaps and terrorizes Americans, the killer-kidnapper does not even deign to accept the homage. Rouhani rebuffed him.
Who can blame Rouhani? Offer a few pleasant words in an op-ed hailing a new era of non-zero-sum foreign relations and watch the media and the administration immediately swoon with visions of detente.
But at least we have to talk, say the enthusiasts. As if we haven't been talking. For a decade. Strung along in negotiations of every manner — the EU3, the P5+1, then the final, very final, last-chance 2012 negotiations held in Istanbul, Baghdad and Moscow at which the Iranians refused to even consider the nuclear issue, declaring the dossier closed. Plus two more useless rounds this year.