Hasan Rouhani is no moderate on Iran's nuclear weapons program


Iranian President-elect Hassan Rohani gestures to the media during a news conference in Tehran June 17, 2013.

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  • Rowhani deceived, mocked and disdained the West during his time as Iran’s top nuclear negotiator @AmbJohnBolton

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  • the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps actually make key military policy decisions, not Iran’s president

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  • the catnip effect on Western diplomats of negotiating with Iran never lost its allure @AmbJohnBolton

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Within days of Hasan Rouhani’s election as Iran’s president, the White House and several European governments were already ecstatic at the possibility of resuming negotiations over Tehran’s nuclear-weapons program.  

Of course, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps actually make key military policy decisions, not Iran’s president, but mere political reality is unlikely to slow down the Obama administration and its European Union (“EU”) counterparts.

Before even more irrational exuberance breaks out over Rouhani’s pledge to make Iranian’s nuclear program more “transparent,” however, some history is in order.  

Rouhani’s long, uninterrupted devotion to Iran’s Islamic Revolution includes heading its National Security Council for sixteen years, and he was Tehran’s key nuclear negotiator in 2003-2005.  

His actions during that period reveal much about him and the regime.

In September, 2003, Britain, France and Germany (“the EU-3”) made several overtures to open talks with Iran, including offering Iran nuclear-reactor technology on the precondition that it cease uranium-enrichment activities, which the EU-3 believed would effectively halt the nuclear-weapons program.  

This proved to be a disastrous mistake.  

Iran was to use the next three-and-one-half years to make steady progress, overcoming the scientific and technological difficulties of uranium conversion, uranium enrichment, and other key elements in its nuclear-weapons effort.  

Rouhani was central to Iran’s strategy of using protracted negotiations to buy time and legitimacy under diplomatic cover.

Senior European diplomats first met with Rowhani on the nuclear issue in October.  He said unequivocally that Iran was cooperating with International Atomic Energy Agency (“IAEA”) attempts to monitor Iran’s nuclear activities, which even the gullible EU-3 knew was untrue.  

Rouhani also promised Iran would sign an “Additional Protocol” to its existing IAEA Safeguards Agreement (thereby allowing enhanced IAEA inspections), which it did in December, 2003.  

But as recently as May 22, 2013, the IAEA Secretariat reported that, ten years later, Iran still has not brought the Protocol into force or begun implementing it.  

Rouhani was engaging in the regime’s propensity for empty propaganda, pure and simple.

On the EU’s supposed precondition that Iran cease all enrichment-related activities, Rouhani seized on the chimera that would mesmerize the EU-3 for the next ten years, to this very day.  

He said Iran might consider “suspending” enrichment activities, but only if the West guaranteed a fuel supply for Iran’s nuclear reactors.  

This “promise” was easy for Iran to make, since the mullahs knew we could not effectively verify where all their uranium-enrichment facilities were, let alone judge whether Iran was upholding its side of the bargain. 

But as long as negotiations persisted, Iran could build out its nuclear infrastructure while the West blithely ignored the growing danger embodied in these expanding capabilities.  And because Iran then had only one operating research reactor, its need for reactor fuel was (and still is) insignificant compared to the enrichment facilities under construction.  The only logical explanation for the massive enrichment program was providing weapons-grade uranium for an extensive arsenal of warheads.

When the EU-3 foreign ministers confirmed later in 2003 Iran’s agreement to “suspend” uranium enrichment, they were overjoyed.  

At a joint press conference announcing the “deal.” however, Rouhani explained Iran’s understanding:  “We voluntarily chose to do it, which means it could last for one day or one year.  It depends on us.  As long as Iran thinks that the suspension is beneficial for us it will continue, and whenever we don’t want it, it will end.”

Too bad the EU-3 wasn’t listening.  Tehran’s “suspension” was never anything close to the EU-3 precondition of “cessation.”  

Iran continued the key elements of its weapons program, including  assembling centrifuges, even though not actually spinning uranium gas in them (at least not that we knew of).  

Numerous EU-3 efforts over many months to tie Iran down failed, with Rouhani needling them at every turn.  At one point, in March, 2004, Rouhani said publicly that “We told [the EU-3] that if you don’t fulfill your promise, everything will return to day one,” which is pretty much what happened.  

The “suspension” over which so much diplomatic effort was expended was essentially always an Iranian ruse. As we learned later, Iran was having difficulties with uranium conversion, the process by which uranium is changed chemically from a solid (U3O8) to a gas (UF6), which is then fed into centrifuge cascades for enrichment.  

Not much enrichment was possible without adequate feedstock, so the “suspension” of enrichment activities, which the EU-3 repeatedly but unsuccessfully, tried to make permanent, didn’t actually impair Iran’s program.  

Iran’s repeated statements about the “voluntarily suspension” of some (but not all) enrichment-related activities meant its program was proceeding based on Iran’s technical capabilities and problems, not according to the “agreement” with the EU-3.

But the catnip effect on Western diplomats of negotiating with Iran never lost its allure, which Rouhani understood as well or better than anyone.  In March, 2006, the New York Times reported on a speech Rouhani made after stepping down as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator.  Said the Times:

“…in a remarkable admission, Mr. Rouhani suggested in his speech that Iran had used the negotiations with the Europeans to dupe them…..  ‘While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the facility in Isfahan [the uranium conversion plant], but we still had a long way to go to complete the project,’ he said.  ‘In fact, by creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work on Isfahan.’  As a result of the negotiations with Europe, he added, “we are in fact much more prepared to go to the U.N. Security Council.’”

Rouhani deceived, mocked and disdained the West during his time as Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, while the Iranian nuclear-weapons program continued to progress.  There is every reason to believe he will do exactly the same once inaugurated as Iran’s president.

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About the Author


John R.
  • John R. Bolton, a diplomat and a lawyer, has spent many years in public service. From August 2005 to December 2006, he served as the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations. From 2001 to 2005, he was under secretary of state for arms control and international security. At AEI, Ambassador Bolton's area of research is U.S. foreign and national security policy.

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