We cannot share the West’s optimism over Iran’s seeming shift away from its quest for nuclear weapons. Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, talks the talk the West wants to hear, but whether he is willing to walk the walk is something else again.
Doublespeak is a fact of life in that region of the world. There is no better exemplar of this than the late Yasir Arafat. Time and again, he would say “peace” in English, and “jihad” in Arabic. Once the world caught on, Arafat modified the tactic; he would say what the West wanted to hear, and then have a top aide say the opposite in Arabic, providing him with the diplomatic cover of plausible deniability.
In September 2001, Arafat said he had “issued strict instructions for a total commitment” to a cease-fire during the second intifada. Later that same day, a high-ranking member of Arafat’s al-Fatah faction, Amin Maqbul, said that Arafat’s statement “is nothing more than a tactical initiative and a political maneuver.”
Arafat’s ploy even led to a series of NBC News reports in 2002 titled “Double Talk.” On March 12, 2002, the series launched with a report by correspondent Andrea Mitchell. “He’s been de facto leader of the Palestinians for decades, once calling for total war, now claiming he wants peace,” Mitchell began. “But which Arafat are we to believe? Critics say it’s hard to tell because what he says often depends on whom he’s talking to. There are plenty of examples.”
Mitchell cited two examples, both of which ended with a terrorist attack that took Israeli lives.
In Mitchell’s report, Martin Indyk, a former ambassador to Israel and today the Obama administration’s Middle East point man, said of Arafat, “He tells us he’s going to do one thing and he signals to his people another thing.”
Arafat is not alone in this penchant for doublespeak. His successor as chairman of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, is equally comfortable with the tactic. So are leaders of the rival Hamas faction. Examples abound here, too.
There is no reason to suspect that Iran’s new leader is any different. In fact, there is every reason to believe the opposite. Heading the list of those reasons is the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, without whose blessing Rouhani can do nothing. It is only because Khameini gave the green light that Rouhani can make his alleged overtures to the West.
Yet Khameini says one thing and does another. Almost from the start of his reign over Iran, he insisted in public that possessing nuclear weapons was a sin, even as he sanctioned Iran’s nuclear program in private.
Now he says that he approves of Rouhani’s overtures, speaking of the need for “heroic flexibility,” but then refers to Rouhani’s effort as a “tactic” only, one that is “very good and necessary.”
The late President Ronald Reagan’s mantra of “trust, but verify” is one the United States and its allies have to dust off and update in the wake of this “tactic.” Even before it sits down with Iran’s representatives, the West must insist that inspectors return to that country, and be given free and unlimited access to all its nuclear facilities. If the inspectors find evidence of a nuclear weapons program, there will be no doubt that Khameini is a liar and Rouhani is blowing smoke.
Nothing less will do, because the stakes are much too high.