Vigilance, not optimism, in engagement with Iran

Hassan Rohani was sworn in as Iran’s president on Sunday. In his inauguration speech, he alleged that his government would walk the path of “detente” with the world, but that the international community should engage with Iran through “dialogue” and “respect” instead of sanctions. “Mutual transparency is key for opening doors of confidence,” he added.

Rohani promised Iran would pursue “peace and stability in the region” and be “a haven of stability”.

He presented the Majles, the Iranian parliament, with his cabinet choices. The Majles is expected to vote on the list next week.

The US said it was ready to work with Mr Rohani’s government if it were serious about engagement. “The inauguration of President Rohani presents an opportunity for Iran to act quickly to resolve the international community’s deep concerns over Iran’s nuclear program,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

Unlike Mr. Carney, the Iranian people seemed not to see much opportunity in the event. Apart Hassan Rohani’s past record marking continuous presence and action in security agencies of the clerical regime for three decades; apart his strong and flawless loyalty to the supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei, permitting him to take part in a presidential election where only eight people among more than 800 were allowed to attend; his choice of ministers is tell-tale of his internal intentions: his proposed candidate for the sensitive post of Justice Ministry is Mostapha Pour-Mohammadi, for years a strongman in the feared Ministry of Intelligence and a member of the three-judge panel that condemned thousands of political prisoners to death in 1988.

At that time, just after the Iran-Iraq war, Iran put thousands of political prisoners to death during a few months. During those months, the three-judge panel retried thousands of inmates already serving sentences. The hearing lasted a few minutes for each prisoner. Those inmates who stood by their opposition to the regime were ordered immediately hanged. As many as 30,000 prisoners were thus massacred according to the opposition.

As for “peace and stability in the region,” Mr. Rohani is a fervent supporter of the Iranian military engagement in Syria. He stressed in a recent interview with an Arab leading newspaper: “Syria is the only country in the region which has resisted the expansionist policies and conducts of Israel.”

Yesterday a leading  French weekly revealed how Iran trained Iraqi Chiites in a base close to Tehran before sending them to suppress popular uprising in Syria.

But even more than his freak record back home his own conduct during the period he was in charge of the nuclear negotiations with the West should ring bells. During the two year period of 2003 – 2005, as head of the Iranian nuclear negotiating team, he assured the European Troika formed by Great Britain, France and Germany as his negotiating counterparts that uranium enrichment in Iran’s nuclear facilities had stopped while they were talking. The Sunday Telegraph however wrote later in 2006: “In a speech to a closed meeting of leading Islamic clerics and academics, Hassan Rohani, who headed talks with the so-called EU3 until last year, revealed how Tehran played for time and tried to dupe the West after its secret nuclear program was uncovered by the Iranian opposition in 2002.” In fact cascades of centrifuges were completed during all the time Rohani was negotiating with the Europeans with not a single machine coming to a halt.

As for mutual transparency, the Iranian opposition revealed only two weeks ago a hidden nuclear site located in tunnels beneath a mountain near the town of Damavand, 44 miles northeast of Tehran.

According to the opposition, the site has existed since 2006 with the first series of subterranean tunnels and four external depots recently completed.

They claimed Hassan Rohani had a “key role” in the program.

It seems that optimism towards Rohani is unfounded. With the absolute power in the hands of the supreme leader Khamenei, and with Rohani’s obedience towards Khamenei in spite of existing relations with other factions in the regime, it is obvious that he would try to buy time before anything else, if there would be anything else.

So vigilance, and not optimism, has to remain the motto in any engagement with Iran.