Not the Time for Big Sticks

Obama should hold the bravado and respond reasonably to Iran's conciliatory signals

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Sasha Mordovets / Getty Images

Newly-elected president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani.

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Of course, Rouhani is not the man actually running the country; that's the Supreme Leader, Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, who is deeply anti-Western and anti-American. But he is also a smart and sophisticated politician who wants to stay in power by limiting internal discontent. And so, on Sept. 17, Khamenei said Iran would engage in "heroic leniency" to try to come to an agreement with the international community. He also affirmed, "We do not believe in nuclear weapons because of our beliefs, not for the sake of the U.S. or other countries, and when we say that no country should possess nuclear weapons, we ourselves are definitely not trying to possess them."

Now of course this could all be camouflage and smoke screen. But there is another possibility. The international sanctions against Iran are hurting the country badly. Tehran's support for Bashar Assad's brutal regime in Syria is costing Iran money and arms every month and has tarnished its legitimacy at home. The Arab Spring, for all its problems, has put the spotlight on Iran's Supreme Leader, who has been in power for 24 years. One of the chants heard in Tehran two years ago was "Mubarak, Ben Ali, now it's time for Sayyid Ali [Khamenei]." In these circumstances, defusing some tensions, easing the sanctions and reviving the economy would be extremely useful to the regime in Tehran.

At the very least, the Obama Administration should come up with a reasonable offer that would signal to the Iranian people that if the regime is willing to credibly forswear nuclear weapons, ordinary Iranians will have a brighter future. But it is difficult to sound reasonable while you are beating the drums of war.

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