Skip to main content

Be cautious with new, smiley-faced Iran

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
updated 11:56 AM EDT, Mon September 30, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Frum: In face of Rouhani's moves, U.S. should smile back, keep up sanctions
  • He says there's reason for skepticism; Rouhani has history in terrorism-backing regime
  • He says Khameini holds the real power; still, there's hope some change may begin
  • Frum: Iran has long record of deceit; for progress, nuke program must be shut down

Editor's note: David Frum, a CNN contributor, is a contributing editor at The Daily Beast. He is the author of eight books, including a new novel, "Patriots," and a post-election e-book, "Why Romney Lost." Frum was a special assistant to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2002.

(CNN) -- How to react to Iran's new smiley-faced president, Hassan Rouhani?

Smile back, but don't stop squeezing Iran with sanctions.

Rouhani has offered a series of positive gestures since taking office in early August. He has released some political prisoners. He sent New Year's greetings to Jews in Iran and around the world. He took a phone call from the president of the United States.

David Frum
David Frum

Does any of this portend real change in Iran?

The case for skepticism is strong. None of the regime has changed in any way. Iran continues to make mischief through the region, most horrifically by supporting the brutal actions of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. As far as anyone can tell, Iran pursues nuclear weapons as determinedly as ever.

Rouhani himself is no liberal and no Democrat. An early supporter of the Ayatollah Khomeini, Rouhani held senior positions in the Iranian state during the regime's most vicious period of international terrorism, the early 1990s - the years in which Iranian-backed terrorists carried out assassinations in Berlin and Paris and carried out two terrible bombings of Jewish targets in Buenos Aires, killing 114 people and wounding nearly a thousand more.

As Iran's chief nuclear negotiator in the 2000s, Rouhani nimbly evaded international efforts to achieve a peaceful end to the country's drive for weapons of mass death.

More fundamentally, the president of Iran does not govern the country's national security system. The military and the secret police answer to the supreme leader, the Ayatollah Khameini, who has very emphatic geopolitical ideas of his own. Compared with all that, a cheerful tweet and a few words of condemnation of Nazi crimes don't seem much of an offset.

So, caution.

Presidential historian on U.S.-Iran call
Historic call ends 34 years of silence
Rouhani's landmark week

But there is an "on the other hand."

On the other hand, sanctions have been biting Iran hard the past year. The currency has plunged in value, inflation rages, goods have become scarce in the shops. Iran's leaders have seen other authoritarian rulers swept from power in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya - and pushed to the very brink in Syria. Has Iran's leadership become frightened that it could fall victim to similar grievances? If anything, Iran's economic situation has deteriorated further and faster than that of any of the countries in which leaders were toppled.

Iranian elections are neither free nor fair. But Iranian elections do permit some controlled airing of public grievances. Rouhani has been quoted as saying that he does not approve of Iran's centrifuges spinning while the economy remains stagnant. As so often the case with him, these are very ambiguous words. Perhaps he means that he'd like to accelerate the spinning of both the centrifuges and the economy. Perhaps he is expressing a purely personal and ineffectual opinion.

But it's worth the effort to explore whether he and his colleagues might mean something more.

Western diplomats often succumb to the Iranian demand that we accept total responsibility for the Iran-West relationship while assigning Iran none. Last week, the New Yorker magazine indulged yet another example of this tendency when it quoted Ryan Crocker, former ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq, as suggesting that we might have reached a deal with Iran in 2002 if only President George W. Bush had not bruised the mullah's feelings with his "axis of evil" speech, in whose drafting I played a role.

The hope that some magic incantation might change Iran springs eternal, but states are more thick-skinned than that. They act for deep reasons of interest. Iran's policy toward the West originates inside the regime, and so will any changes of that policy.

If those changes have begun, the United States should be ready to recognize and welcome them. But there should be no mistaking why those changes have begun: economic pressure from Western-imposed sanctions and fear of American-backed military action. End the pressure and the fear prematurely, and the changes will end.

Iran's nuclear program must be closed down for good. Iran's long record of evasion and deceit requires more than mere promises - we must see decisive and irrevocable proof. Until Iran changes policy, we don't change policy. But if Iran changes its tone, we can change tone, too. A smile is a helpful start, so long as we all understand that it's only a start.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:37 AM EDT, Tue October 28, 2014
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
updated 7:45 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
updated 3:04 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
updated 8:32 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
updated 7:19 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Julian Zelizer says control of the Senate will be decided by a few close contests
updated 8:12 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The response of some U.S. institutions that should know better to Ebola has been anything but inspiring, writes Idris Ayodeji Bello.
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The Swedes will find sitting on the fence to be increasingly uncomfortable with Putin as next door neighbor, writes Gary Schmitt
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The Ottawa shooting pre-empted Malala's appearances in Canada, but her message to young people needs to be spread, writes Frida Ghitis
updated 9:48 PM EDT, Sat October 25, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT