Iranian President Hassan Rowhani waves before entering an airplane upon...

Iranian President Hassan Rowhani waves before entering an airplane upon his departure to the United States to attend the UN General Assembly. (Sept. 23, 2013) Credit: Getty Images

"Down is up and up is down. I feel like we have passed through the looking glass and are looking back at a backwards world," a military historian of the modern Middle East wrote in a recent note to me about the hectic diplomacy over Syria and Iran.

"Where did all the realists go? It's as though the Cold War never took place." The logic of familiar things has been overturned. Iran President Hassan Rohani comes to New York for a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly preceded by a brilliant publicity campaign. There was an interview with NBC, with a female correspondent at that. There was an op-ed article under his name in the Washington Post. His foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, sent Rosh Hashanah greetings to Jews worldwide via Twitter.

The Iranian president stepped forth in the nick of time, right as the Obama administration was reeling from the debacle of its Syria policy. We have been here before with the skilled and tenacious guild that runs the Iranian theocracy.

An attractive cleric with a winning smile, Mohammad Khatami, cultured and literate, preaching the notion of a "dialogue of civilizations," was elected president in a landslide in 1997; he was re-elected four years later. Great hopes were pinned on Khatami. He delivered an oration at the Washington National Cathedral, and his ascent was seen on both sides of the Atlantic as evidence of the mellowing of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's revolution of 1979.

But the hopes invested in Khatami were to no avail. Iran pushed on with its nuclear weapons program and with its bid for greater power in neighboring states. At home, a student rebellion animated by unmistakable liberal sentiments that broke out in 1999 was crushed without mercy.

Khatami was either a man powerless to defend the movement or a faithful son of the Khomeini order who was given leeway by the regime's powers that be. He couldn't defy the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, or run afoul of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard.

The case is now being made that Rohani is no freelancer, that he is a player of standing in the regime, and that the olive branch he carries with him has the consent of the supreme leader himself. The regime has been humbled, brought low by draconian sanctions, this line of argument goes, and has come to a reckoning with its weaknesses. There are serious and obvious flaws in this view.

These begin with Rohani's biography. As pointed out by Sohrab Ahmari in the Wall Street Journal, Rohani, who was secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council for 16 years, starting in 1989, "led the crackdown on a 1999 student uprising and helped the regime evade Western scrutiny of the nuclear-weapons program." Indeed, from 2003 to 2005, Rohani was Iran's chief negotiator over the nuclear program. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, who once proclaimed that he hadn't become the king's first minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the empire, Rohani hasn't risen to the presidency of Iran to barter away the regime's nuclear assets.

The assertion of the Obama administration and its chorus that the theocracy is now at a low point in its fortunes can be turned on its head. Iran has been fighting a proxy war with the United States over Syria, and can be said to have prevailed in that contest.

The regime of Bashar Assad hasn't fallen; in a moment of peril for the Syrian dictatorship, Iran dispatched the fighters of the Hezbollah militia deep into the war. They and the Revolutionary Guard turned the tide of war in Assad's favor.

The supreme leader and his lieutenants watched an American leader draw a "red line" in Syria, only to blink when it counted. Masters of chess - didn't they invent the game? - they had an exquisite sense of Obama's dilemma.

Rohani had the indecency of shedding crocodile tears for Syria in his Washington Post article, speaking of it as a "jewel of civilization" that had turned into a "scene of heartbreaking violence, including chemical weapons attacks." So much of this violence, he doubtless knew, has been the work of the Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah, its Lebanese satrap.

Iran's clerics have nothing to lose from the diplomacy entrusted to Rohani. They bought time for their nuclear program and for their client regime in Damascus. The theocracy has erected a deep structure of power. Men such as Rohani are dispensable.

There is a tenaciousness to the theocracy's bid for power and to its survival instincts.

Let Obama have his boast about the efficacy of the economic sanctions imposed on Iran. The theocracy can live with that. Since its conquest of power in 1979, it has had the perfect level of enmity with the U.S. - just enough to serve as the ideological glue of a regime built on paranoia and xenophobia without triggering a military campaign that could do it damage.

American officials now say that Iran can't draw comfort from the reticence of Obama on Syria, that American vigilance would be greater on Iran's nuclear assets than had been the case thus far over Syria's chemical weapons.

But on that diplomatic chessboard, and before a big crowd that has gathered to watch the protagonists in a standoff with high stakes, it is easy to see the American player being decisively outclassed. There is cunning aplenty in Persia, an eye for that exact moment when one's rival has been trapped.

Fouad Ajami is a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. He is the author of "The Syrian Rebellion," published by Hoover Press.


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