Updated: October 25, 2013 6:16AM
When the new president of Iran, Hasan Rouhani, addresses the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, he is expected to make some kind of big conciliatory gesture, such as acknowledging the Holocaust.
Can you imagine? Iran finally stops denying an indisputable historic fact, and from this it would hope to gain diplomacy bonus points.
Next thing you know, President Rouhani will declare the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. He may even venture to say puppies are cute. And from such bold pronouncements, the West will surely feel confident that Iran is eager to build better relationships and end its efforts to develop nuclear weapons.
We prefer a wise and more wary view:
The United States and its allies should welcome Iran’s more conciliatory tone and pursue all sincere diplomatic overtures. Of course. But Rouhani’s charm offensive alone shouldn’t count for much. Iran must accept stiff limits on its nuclear program before the West eases up on its crippling economic sanctions. And the United States, along with Israel, should back up diplomacy with the continued credible threat of a military strike.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel does not exaggerate the danger when he warns — as reportedly he will do at the U.N. next week — that Iran’s latest diplomatic offensive may be just a way to buy more time for its nuclear program. Netanyahu, according to the New York Times, is expected to cite the example of North Korea, which in 2005 agreed to abandon its nuclear weapons program in return for economic, security and energy benefits, only to test its first nuclear device a year later.
“A bad agreement is worse than no agreement at all,” a statement from Netanyahu’s office warns.
Striking the right balance between talk and force is always tough for world leaders, as the United States’ current dance with Syria demonstrates. Had President Barack Obama not stood fast in threatening a military strike, Syria never would have agreed, at least in principle, to give up its chemical weapons. But had Obama resorted to a missile attack as quickly as he clearly intended — unhindered by reluctant allies and a skeptical American public — it is doubtful that diplomatic door would have opened in time.
Time, nonetheless, is running out for a diplomatic resolution in Iran. The UN Security Council imposed its current economic sanctions against Iran in 2006 after Iran refused to suspend its uranium enrichment program. But in the seven years that followed, Iran rejected any good-faith talks, instead lashing out with wild and empty threats, making it difficult now for anybody to put much stock in Rouhani’s call for “interaction, negotiation and understanding.”
If Rouhani — whose authority to speak for Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is not even clear — is sincere in his wish to open a dialogue with the United States and the West, the first big move will have to be his. And we would hope it is more than an acknowledgment that the Holocaust happened.
The challenge for the Obama administration will be to recognize and seize on any real and substantive peace overture. A Middle East in which Iran — friend to terrorists groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah — has nuclear weapons is grim to contemplate. But the American people seem to have soured on military interventions, as reflected by their skepticism of an attack on Syria.
Americans have learned from painful experience in the last decade that the surgical precision, effectiveness and predictable consequences of military action inevitably are oversold. We may be a superpower, but kryptonite is everywhere.
We believe Congress and the American people would support a military strike against Iran if necessary, the stakes being so much higher there than in Syria.
But they will do so only if convinced every peaceable alternative has been exhausted.